A Leadership Style for the Young and Old and for Teams Big and Small
I received a phone call from a former team member this week. He called for tech support on his iPhone. After I addressed that matter, the conversation moved on to how things have been going in his retirement.
In that conversation, I remarked, “Retirement is still a long way off for me.”
He replied, “How old are you nowadays?”
“Huh. If you are 43 now, how old were you when you hired me?”
“Really? Well, you were a pretty good manager.”
Our conversation meandered to a few other subjects from there. It’s been nearly 7 years since we worked together. Our conversation brought me back to what it was like to be a young manager.
For one thing, I was pretty sure I wasn’t any good at it. I had a passion for leading people, but everyone I led was smarter, more experienced, and in some cases, over 2 decades older than me. I made a lot of mistakes, yet over time, my bosses kept giving me more and more responsibility. My team members, regardless of their age or experience, gave me their sincere respect.
Every day was a battle with imposter syndrome. I didn’t feel like I deserved my authority, but despite that doubt, I was compelled to serve the needs of my team.
My leadership style
My way of leading doesn’t have universal appeal in the corporate world. I’m a little different than most. For me, it works. I started my career in management at the young age of 27. These principles have served me well, every step of the way:
- People first. That’s easy to say, hard to do. People over goals. People over budgets. People over technologies. Sometimes this gets messy. But when I put people first, they move mountains for me. They also call me when their iPhone breaks 7 years later, so there’s that.
- Servant leadership. I don’t do command and control. I don’t do mandatory. I rally people around a purpose and give them as much freedom as possible to achieve their goals.
- I listen for brilliance. Somehow, I am a magnet for smart, driven people. They come to find me, and I am grateful for that. I do my best to not squander that privilege. I synthesize, shape, and collaborate to bring ideas to life, get them funded, and create opportunities to win. I owe that to the smart people that follow me.
- I teach and coach in every moment. I’m not the hero. I’m in the background, helping each of my team members succeed. The Zach on Leadership blog and podcast is an extension of this principle.
- Laugh. If work isn’t fun, you are doing it wrong. If your meetings aren’t fun, you are doing them wrong. Your job as a leader is to make work fun, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
- I’m not perfect. Remember those principles above? Yeah, I’ve messed up on every one of them. Naturally, I’m very hard on myself. It’s difficult for me to write this article because anyone that has worked with me long enough will think of times where I didn’t live up to these standards. I remind myself that there’s always another chance tomorrow.
The best thing about these leadership principles is that you can implement them when you are 27 leading a team of 3, or when you are 43 leading a team of 140. These principles scale wonderfully.
At last, I’ve been leading long enough that I can enjoy some reflection on what has worked well over the years. If you’ve found this article encouraging, please share it with your colleagues.