What Makes a Good Leader?

I later found myself wondering if they followed me because they respected me, or because they were afraid of my perception of my own power.

What is leadership? It is something most of us encounter on an almost daily basis, but how often do we really think about it? As children, we used to play Follow the Leader, which taught us to mimic the actions and words of one of our selected peers. They’d often walk along abnormal routes, bend and stretch in obscure ways, and make goofy sounds for us to mimic. The game conditioned us to copy exactly what our leaders told us to do in order to “win.” Once we earned our opportunity to lead through perfect blind obedience, we were faced with the challenge of where to lead our loyal followers. In this new leadership position, we found ourselves faced with the question: “What do I do now?” In some cases, we simply continued to mimic the actions and sounds we observed from our peers previous attempts at leadership. In other cases, we copied the movements and sounds we saw on television or in a movie. With each new movement we completed, we carefully watched our loyal followers, just waiting to see one of them make a mistake so we could shamefully eliminate them from the game. What did this teach us? It taught us as bosses our job was to challenge employees and wait for them to make a mistake so we could punish them for their failures. It instilled in us a fear-based leadership system that glorified the “firing” of our loyal, but imperfect, followers.

As a child, I often thought a bosses job was to yell at employees and fire them angrily when he needed to prove a point or make an example. As I grew older, I had my own encounters with leaders, and felt the wrath of several of them. I found that when working for bosses that kept us in a state of fear and nervousness, I often hated my job. I was always afraid of being disciplined, and avoided contact with my supervisor at all costs. I also did exactly what was asked of me, and nothing more because I knew that taking the extra step would leave me vulnerable to mistakes that would not be accepted by my angry leader. I’d go home miserable, and dread coming to work each morning. My colleagues would feel a similar sense of dread, and it even affected our home lives. Companies that employee these types of supervisors tend to find a high turnover rate, or terribly submissive employees who are afraid to demonstrate any creativity that may end up benefiting the company. With each angry boss I encountered, I often thought to myself: There must be a better way.

“We went against the perceived corporate policy of leadership and developed a friendship.”

While I was in college, I had a supervisor who was the complete opposite of my previous vengeful leaders. We’d tell jokes, goof off, and share personal stories and philosophies. We went against the perceived corporate policy of leadership and developed a friendship. I enjoyed my job, and found myself eager to take greater risks and extra responsibilities. I would talk to my boss about the difficulties and challenges I faced, and share my failures with him. He, in turn, would offer suggestions and share his personal experiences in an attempt to help me grow and develop. Because of his laid back, and what appeared to be a care-free attitude, I would often joke with him and my co-workers about him not being a “real” boss because he failed to adhere to traditional leadership styles. But under his leadership and through our efforts, our numbers reached record highs and saved the company a great deal of money.

Since then, I have held several leadership positions. I have led soldiers, managed my own business, supervised both teachers and students, and even found myself replacing my “carefree” boss from my college job. During my first leadership role as a new private in Basic Combat Training, I found myself constantly yelling and screaming at my platoon. I disciplined them for every single screw up and tried to instill as much fear in them as I possibly could. My platoon was always in line, and at the time I was proud of my accomplishments and my status as a leader. But I later found myself wondering if they followed me because they wanted to do their jobs well, or because they were afraid of my perception of my own power, which was actually the borrowed power of the Drill Sergeants I was reporting to.

With every supervisory position I’ve held, I have worked to modify my approach to leadership. I have tried to incorporate much of the structure and discipline I learned in the Army and match it with the laid back, “care free” style my former boss demonstrated. I have come to embrace the mistakes my employees make as training opportunities as opposed to infractions that warrant discipline. I have learned that when an employee realizes I am willing to help him with his challenges and not constantly reprimand him, he takes the extra steps and puts in the extra time. My employees don’t feel the need to lie to me or cover things up, because they know they can trust that I am not out to get them. I don’t expect my team to Follow the Leader blindly. I expect them to learn and grow, because I realize that if my employees are doing well, then I am doing well.
Overall, I have come to realize that as a leader I am charged with the training and supervision of those appointed under me. It is my job to make sure they have not only what they need, but also that they are able to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, and hopefully have a little fun in the process. I am not afraid to do the jobs they are assigned to do, and often take the time to do so in order to maintain an understanding of the challenges they face daily. As a leader I have learned that although my employees may be assigned to me, I am the one who works for them.


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