Early Leadership Lessons

leadershipChildren are intensely impacted and influenced early in life in ways that affect their health, behavior, and choices going forward. This is why pre-natal care and early childhood education are extremely important.

I have always thought that early workplace experiences shape people in a similarly intense way. The leaders we see in action when we are new in the world of work strongly shape our own beliefs, behaviors, and actions when we, ourselves, become leaders. Sometimes we react against what we saw, vowing to do it differently because of how we were affected.  Sometimes we honor the examples they set by holding on to their models and seeking to emulate them.

In other words, leaders have a generational impact.

Knowing this, leaders must continuously focus on their own effectiveness to. Part of the way to figure that out is for leaders to turn back and look at their own leadership roots. What leaders influenced and affected them early on? This is not only a stroll down memory lane. Answering the question intentionally can reveal a great deal about one’s own leadership style, approach, and signature — and where they might have come from and which aspects should continue to be embraced or, perhaps, discarded.

My first boss was a restaurant owner… and a prima donna. In those days it was a mark to have a boss who wasn’t a man, but Evelyn was distant and formidable. She was also pretty bad with customers. Her high and mighty ways confused me. I am not an imperious sort but for years I tortured myself that I wasn’t more commanding and authoritative. That was, I thought, a part of the formula for success. Was I already a failure?

Another one of my early managers ran the food service at the college. He was was casual and disorganized. He had a streak of the teddy bear about him — loved his employees and fussed about their welfare. His habits and systems, however, added chaos to an already high paced workplace. I was baffled again. He was the opposite of a prima donna and he invested in his people. But he seemed so ineffective. I vowed then to try to do both — care about people but also be more systematic.

One summer in college I worked for the woman who ran Amnesty International-USA. (This was in 1971 before the organization was known or understood.) She was a deeply skilled mentor and teacher.  She gave me assignments that were a stretch. She knew how to maximize resources since we barely had money for the rent. She recognized that I cared about the mission of the organization but needed to know how to contribute, not just care. She had a fabulous personal network. I learned an enormous amount from her and have spent the last four decades trying to emulate her.

My stories are not unique. They are just examples of what we each have — experiences that gave us important signals about what leaders are like. Understanding our own leadership DNA means we can parse our stories and pass on the best to the next generation.



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