Updated: Jun 17, 2019
Effective leadership is always part theater. This doesn’t imply fakery or playing make-believe. It means that leadership is more than being competent, knowing what to do, and being willing to take risks.
You also need to take-action in a way that is purposely intended to teach others how to do what you know how to do; to transfer your skills and expertise to those around you through your personal example and modeling.
When I was a young counselor for troubled youth in a day-treatment alternative school, I prided myself on being direct and blunt. On the positive side, I had high expectations for the young people we served. Students trusted that I would tell them the truth. I didn’t put up with lies or BS. If I thought you were using drugs again, I’d say so. If you acted outrageous, I’d be one of the first to intervene.
I was never burdened with the desire that all the kids should like me. I wasn’t there to be their friend. I was there to help them stay clean, get off probation, and learn a new way of life that wouldn’t end in perpetual addiction, jail, or death.
In that setting, most adults walked through the door with a big heart on their sleeve. They didn’t work for this program for the money or summers off. They were there because they wanted to help the kids who needed it most. When training new staff, we usually had to help people learn how to combine that care with a willingness to confront, set strong limits, and make people uncomfortable.
I had the opposite challenge.
One day, we had a particularly intense group session. We had been discussing behavior norms and dealing with the impact of a few negative leaders in the student community; a few of whom I relentlessly called-out during the group. When those handful of young people escalated the confrontation, I escalated right back. Eventually, those few students backed down, the group established some new standards for behavior, and we moved on.
After the group, an experienced counselor pulled me aside. He asked me how I thought the activity went that day. I said that it seemed like a successful group. After all, we “shut-down” a few of the students who had been derailing things recently. However, I also sensed that the activity had gone sideways in some way; I just wasn’t sure what was amiss.
Then he asked me an unexpected question, “Why do you do this work?”
A bit surprised I responded, “What do you mean? I do this work because I care about these kids.”
He nodded and then added, “Yeah. I believe you. I know you care about our students. I just don’t think they know it.”
I was floored. Part of me wanted to argue and defend myself, but I knew there was truth in what he said. This conversation was a turning point for me, my growth as a counselor, and frankly, as a person. We had a good long talk. This is what I learned that day:
I was good at modeling how to be strong, but was not comfortable modeling how to be vulnerable. I knew how to be right, but didn’t know how to be unsure. I consistently pushed people to improve, but failed to communicate that I cared.
I was good at keeping everyone in line, but not very effective at teaching them how to change.
Real learning, especially where personal behavior is concerned, requires vulnerability, willingness let go of old certainties, and an admission that you need the care and support of others.
I wasn’t modeling any of that for our students. I was just the hard-ass who’d bite your face off if you acted-up. I realized that I wasn’t as good at my job as I thought I was, and that I still had a lot to learn.
The problem I faced at this point was that vulnerability, comfort with ambiguity, and all things touchy-feely did not come naturally to me. It wasn’t who I was.
The hard lesson I learned that day was that leadership isn’t only about being “who you are”. It’s also about being who those you have chosen to serve need you to be.
Personally, I really didn’t want to make any of those changes. Why would I? I was comfortable with who I was. The problem was, my current behavior wasn’t helping our students. If I really cared about them, I needed to change.
This forced me to be radically, if begrudgingly, humble. I honestly did not know how to get from here to there. I needed help.
My experienced co-worker helped me realize that this was precisely the position our students were in… They had longstanding patterns of behavior that they didn’t necessarily want to change, but they knew that they had to do something different if they wanted to move forward in life.
He suggested that I be a lot more open about what is difficult for me in this setting and share my own plan for change with the students. He assured me that this did not mean that I should be falsely humble or obsessively communicate my self-doubts.
Instead, I should demonstrate that real courage and strength was a willingness to admit your weaknesses and commit to change. That was exactly the example that these students needed to see in action.
So, he challenged me, do you want to be seen as competent? Do you want to be seen as strong while also communicating that you care? If so, then I should work on being the best at:
Admitting my faults
Talking openly about what I’m working on in my relationships and behavior
Taking risks and sharing stories that are personal and humanize me
Use my failures and self-correction as public learning lessons
Fearlessly take responsibility for my actions and decisions