Growing up as a military dependent taught me some amazing life lessons. I learned how to make friends quickly and how to maintain them for life. I learned how to pack everything from clothes to dishes, from books to furniture.
I learned that a home is not just some house filled with furniture—any apartment or house or building will do, as long as Mom and Dad and my sister and brother were there. “Home is where your heart is,” my mother would tell us, “as long as we are all there together, that place will be our home.” Life lessons were learned as we traveled from Texas to Austria, from Michigan to Pakistan, from Washington, D.C. to Germany.
All the lessons I learned have helped to shape the person I am today: the values I hold dear, the personality I have, the people I choose to love. But the lesson that has had perhaps the most impact on my business life and the careers I have chosen, was the lesson about leadership.
I had many leadership role models throughout my childhood: my Dad, my Mom, my Sunday school teacher, our pastor, and my teachers (Mrs. Latimer and Mr. Hay especially), the assistant principal, and so many more. Early on, I didn’t really understand the true meaning of the word “leader”. Rather, I had the belief that all these people were there to tell me what to do.
This confusion is one that many people have upon entering the business world. In business, depending on our chosen profession, we are confronted with different categories of what we believe to be our “leaders”. They are our supervisors, the Master Sergeant, the “boss,” the Vice President of a company, our manager. Early on I believed that every one of these “authority” figures was actually a “leader.”
But life was to teach me a great lesson: the difference between a “boss” or “manager” (or whatever title they may have had) and a true “leader.” The person who helped me to recognize this difference and embrace it for myself was one of the people I believed was there to tell me what to do - my Dad.
Dad was a military officer, an Infantryman and a master paratrooper. He had fought in World War II, been a member of the OSS, would eventually be a Special Forces Green Beret and would advise troops in South Vietnam. I saw him as the head of our family. He was tough, with a commanding presence, and I loved him completely! All Dad had to do was to say “I am disappointed in you,” and I would do anything I could to please him!
After I left home and entered the business world, I found myself at times emulating my Dad in the business world. I was tough, decisive, a hard worker, excellent at whatever I did. I considered myself to be a good “leader.” Little did I know that I was not considered a leader at all - I was considered a good, competent employee, with good “management” potential. But I had yet to understand the characteristics that I needed to develop in order for people to want to FOLLOW me! That would come later, after I had climbed my way through a number of business successes.
I remember after I had received a great promotion and went “home” to visit with my parents. I was speaking with my Dad and we were discussing my frustration with my apparent inability to get the people on my team to go along with some of my ideas. I knew that my ideas were the right way to go - I even had the endorsement of my senior VP - but for some reason I was having difficulty with my staff members. I felt as if they were working against me.
Dad listened as I shared my frustrations with him that day, and then he asked me an important question. “Are you telling your people what you want them to do or are you showing them the way?” I was really confused by this, and it took Dad a while to get me to understand. What I had been doing was telling my people the right way to do things - the way I always did them. I was not earning their respect; I was not leading the way. I was under the impression that if I knew the right way to do something and told my people how to do it, then that meant I was a good leader. Was I ever wrong!
The reality is that people are motivated by people who show them the way, who guide them, who demonstrate the best techniques.
Employees - especially mine - did not believe that I cared about them. Although I was really good at doing my job, I was lousy at motivating people to follow me. Once I grasped this difference, it opened up my life to a new way of being. It also has helped me understand that every person I meet, in fact, every person I don’t meet, has the potential to be a leader to someone about something! We all have those people in our lives who will continue to tell us what to do. They are the “bosses.” But each of us has the inherent potential to be a leader.
Think about the examples in your own life. If you are a parent, you have the potential to be a great leader in your family. You can guide, set the example, and demonstrate through your own actions exactly how you would like your children to behave. How many of us have seen parents who yell or scream directions at their children (“don’t smoke”, “don’t drink”, “don’t do drugs”) and yet, the behavior they demonstrate is contrary to their directions (they smoke, drink, AND do drugs!)? They are not leaders. They are bullies and the children they raise will struggle through their lives with these mixed messages: directions or directives in direct contradiction with the examples they observe.
On the other hand, have you ever seen parents with children seem to constantly be doing all the right things? These parents demonstrate—on a daily basis—the behaviors and the attitudes they want their children to have. They guide, they set great examples, they lead their children, and they set a great precedence for their children.
Another example would be a committee on which you are a member. It could be a committee at your church, at work, a social group to which you belong, a parents’ group for your children (PTA, Soccer League, etc.), or even a Neighborhood Watch Group or a Homeowner’s Association. Each of these groups provide the members with the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership potential. Are you more inclined to listen to and follow the suggestions of someone who sets a great example, or the person who tries to dictate to everyone?
As I reflect back on that conversation with my Dad, I realize what I great gift he had given me. As my father, he had always demonstrated a positive attitude, care for others, love for the family, pride in one’s achievements, doing the best job possible, striving for excellence. And those were the same qualities I had developed in myself! Dad was my very first true “leader!”
Who are the people who have been the leaders in YOUR life? And are you a leader to someone? Who do you guide, show the way to, encourage, and set an example for? Each of us has at least one leader within us - it is up to us to bring that forth and share ourselves with others.
By Pam Russell
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