I remember the day clearly. I was scheduled to meet with my boss in half an hour, and I sat in my colleague’s office giving myself a pep talk. “I’m just going to tell her that my workload is too big to take on this major project. I have a stack of applications to review, I’m way behind on phone calls, and I have four campus visits this week!” My colleague nodded in agreement. “Yes,” she said, “just tell her what you think and that you’re concerned. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
I took a deep breath and walked down the creaky wooden hall. The admission office of our small, rural campus was in a building that was more than 100 years old. It was beautiful, though a bit creepy at night, as it was supposedly haunted. Our team of four admission counselors experienced the rare circumstance of reporting directly to our division’s Vice President. It was intimidating… or rather, I myself was intimidated. While this woman was friendly, she was also tenacious, like a bulldog. She had an incredible work ethic and seemed to be successful at pretty much everything she tried. There was no “give up” in her. She was in her office before we came in each day, and was often there after we left.
Due to a recent turnover in staff, I had taken on campus visit scheduling and event planning in addition to my counselor role. Now, my boss had asked me to spearhead a conference on our campus for every 11th grader in the county, complete with rotating sessions and presenters from both in and outside of the College. It took months to prepare, and it was a logistical mammoth—especially to me, a young professional who barely had two years of admission experience under her belt. After considering her request for me to take on this role, I decided to tell her, much to my chagrin, that I just couldn’t do it—I didn’t have time, and I didn’t want to try something this important and possibly let her, and everyone else in the county, down. It seemed like a reasonable enough request.
She patiently looked at me, and then very matter-of-factly said, “I understand. But if you want to move up, in any job or any aspect of your life, you have to be willing to take on more than what you currently have on your plate. Otherwise, you’ll always stay at the exact same place you are now. The employee time tracking app doesn't really show anything worth of attention.” She kept talking, but I really don’t know what she said after that. When I later saw my colleague, she asked how it went. “I agreed to organize the conference,” I said in wonder, “and somehow she convinced me that it’s a really good idea…”
I now realize that a good leader has that effect. They push you, help you, encourage you, and sometimes hold your feet to the fire. As I look back on her example of leadership, I see how the lessons she taught me then have shaped the person I’ve become now.
That being said, here are five lessons in leadership that stood out, and tips on how you can use them to enhance your own leadership skills.
A good leader pushes you. Taking on a new responsibility was not something I wanted to do. But as a young professional, I didn’t realize it was something I needed to do in order to keep growing and advancing. She not only saw potential in me to take on this new role and excel, but she was also willing to speak truth to me in an encouraging way (more on that later). Ask yourself: Think of yourself as a leader—do you delegate well? Do you pay attention to see how your staff can grow, and if so, do you push them to pursue those opportunities?
A good leader leads by example. One day our team walked across campus for a meeting. As we walked under the huge, ancient elm trees (literally-- these trees are close to 200 years old, and they’re amazing) we noticed a few stray sticks littering the sidewalk. She bent down as she walked by, picked up the sticks, and tossed them off the path. “Always be a good steward,” she said. “It’s everyone’s job to take care of campus.” That simple action has had a tremendous impact on me. Nowadays when I walk around my building, I stop to straighten up or tidy things that are amiss. That lesson continues to pour into my life, whether I’m walking in my neighborhood and see trash, or attending a church service and notice a mess. It’s something I say to my own children: Be a good steward. Taking care of our environment is everyone’s job. Ask yourself: Do you model the small behaviors you want to see in your staff and on your team? It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of life and leave the smaller things for someone else to do. Be the change you want to see, and those around you will follow suit.
A good leader helps you learn to solve your own problems. If her door was open, it meant she was available to us to stop by. It wasn’t unusual for one of the counselors to be in her office at least once a day, usually to review a particular application that stumped us. I learned early on that she was glad to help us—after we first tried to help ourselves. When we brought a problem to her, it was expected that we also brought 1-2 potential solutions. “Don’t just bring me a problem,” she’d say. “Bring me a solution!” She helped shape the way I think through every problem in my life, not just at work. Even if the solution I started with wasn’t the best one, it helped steer the conversation, and we kept talking until the right answer was discovered. Ask yourself: When your team brings you a problem, do you jump in and solve it for them? Look for opportunities to help them learn how to figure it out themselves.
A good leader speaks truth to you. At the end of one of my performance evaluations, she said “You’re really good at the ‘stuff’ of admission. The files, the events, the college fairs… you excel in these areas. But be careful not to get so wrapped up in the ‘stuff’ that you forget about the people. It’s the people who matter. If you forget about people, one day you’ll look up and have all your ‘stuff,’ but people will be gone.” Was that a sobering thing to hear? Yes. Did it stick with me? Absolutely. A good leader doesn’t shy away from being honest, no matter how tough it may be. Ask yourself: Do you tiptoe around hard conversations, or take the long way around to explain a point, rather than being straightforward? Are you willing to speak the truth to your team—whether it’s popular or not?
As a good leader advances up the ladder, they turn around regularly to check on you and your progress. As she got involved in professional associations, she asked me if I would be interested in presenting a session. After learning from lesson #1 (a good leader pushes you) I said, “yes”—and my session was selected for a regional conference. Five years later, I’ve presented eight times at the state, regional, and national levels. I’ve served as a committee chair at both the regional and national levels. I never would have set these goals for myself, but saying “yes” to opportunity has provided growth in many areas. Ask yourself: As you advance in your career, do you check on your entry and mid-level employees and encourage them to step out and try something completely new? There may be someone waiting for a chance to shine if only given the chance.
We now work at different places, but my boss ultimately became my mentor, and my friend. She continues to find ways to help me grow, and is always available as a resource and guide. Thanks to her, I have the confidence to be my own problem solver. And thanks to her, I’m open to taking on new challenges, because I now see them as opportunities for growth. It turns out the little, and big, things make a great difference both in leadership and in life.
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