Sunday, March 1, 2015

Not Zen 151: Following and Leading

The old fellow sat down and said, "I need your advice."

He'd worn a suit today, she noticed. He almost never wore nice clothes to work. The last time he'd put on a blazer had been for a site inspection. He put his hands on her desk and leaned forward as he awaited a response. She saw that he'd trimmed his fingernails.

For years, he'd been her worst technician. When she came to the company, she'd been told to run an evaluation on his work. He'd failed it. The company mandated a second chance for employees in the engineer category and, during the follow-up process, he'd improved to an "acceptable" rating. That meant she couldn't fire him. But his improvement only lasted while he was undergoing evaluation. As soon as the process ended, he'd reverted to his sub-standard ways.

He'd performed at a low level for years, his efforts just enough to keep from getting fired. Once, she'd slated his position for a layoff. His termination had existed on paper. But someone had retired to save him.

When she started in her management job, she'd assumed he hated having a woman as his boss. As she got to know him better, she came to understand that he simply resented work.

"Is this about your hobby?" she asked.

With a sheepish grin, he nodded.

A few years ago, he'd hit bottom. His wife had left him. It looked like he might simply quit his job. Instead, he took more of an interest. He started learning again.

"Remote control technology," she prompted.

"Flight. That's my favorite." He looked down as his pot belly. "It's the reality of my life. I'm out of shape. I'm not rich. Remote control is the only way that someone like me gets to fly."

She tilted her head forward in acknowledgement. It was a realistic assessment.

"Now they're trying to stop us."

"I hear you've visited the state legislature," she said. "You've gotten politically active in your spare time."

He shook his head. "I didn't mean to be. At first, the hobby was something to do. Then I found that I liked flying. And it was kind of fun to accomplish breakthroughs in design and control of planes. Other people were better. But I came a long ways fast. Members of my remote flight group asked me to help them out."

"You're the president of a statewide chapter."

"Yeah. Leading them is hard. It's different than I thought. Working with the group made me realize why you do things the way you do here. I'm sorry that I was such a pain before. I thought you didn't like me personally."

"You don't have to apologize." She waved her hand. It surprised her to feel a rush of happiness. Maybe she had felt she was owed the apology and hadn't admitted it to herself before.

"Anyway, I signed up for more trainings. As soon as I saw the need to manage, the class rules started making sense."

"You're a good team player now." In fact, it was his best attribute. Before, it had been his worst.

"I'd never managed anyone besides myself. I hadn't done such a great job of that, either. But as the hobby was getting fun, we started getting pressure to stop. And what the police were saying about us didn't make sense. Their reasons were wrong. Everyone wanted me to do something about it. They wanted me to organize a team effort."

"So you became their leader."

"Not really. That's not me. But someone has to do this stuff. And of course I've been learning about leadership from you. You're a natural."

She touched her collarbone. He hadn't been hostile to her for years but he'd never said anything nice about her work, either.

"You know," she reflected. "Leadership isn't what I thought. I came from a career in the military. Real life is different. I've watched you. I've learned from seeing you change. As you became a better leader outside the office, you became a better follower and improved team player here."

"I'm sorry I didn't learn this stuff sooner." His gaze sunk. "I guess it was fifteen years of doing a crappy job."

"Leading and following don't work the way I was taught." She put out her hand to pause his continued apology. "I was raised to believe in a mystic ideal of leadership, as if some people had charisma and others didn't. But I witnessed you taking charge of things around you. Obviously, people become leaders when they're needed. It doesn't take an accident of birth. You can rise to it."

"Managing people helped with my understanding of how to be managed.  And how to manage myself." His cheeks grew flush. "Too bad I didn't learn earlier. But I know I can't do everything on my own. I've had to draft legislation recently. One of the state senators asked for a list of rules that made sense."

"You need me to help write them?" She had always been a decent communicator. And he had always been bad about documentation. The prospect of drafting part of a law, though, intimidated her.

"Oh no, I've done the writing." He rubbed his eyes. The effort must have involved some late nights. "Before I hand it to the senator's aide, I'd appreciate your input. You deal with this kind of stuff a lot. I know the rules that I've written make sense to a flight hobbyist. I don't know how they'll seem to everyone else. Are they clear? I'm not sure."

"It's not work related." She took a deep breath. "I'll need to look at it over lunch."

"Right. Well, you don't have to ..."

She raised her hand.

"No, I'm happy to do it. I know how to edit rules and regulations. And I'm glad for the opportunity to help. It's your turn to lead. Now I can learn what you've learned."


  1. Excellent post! Being a good leader is a very complicated task and those that can do it well know the strengths and weakness of the people that they are working with. They then utilize those strengths to achieve goals; this not only makes the individuals feel important but it gets the task done as well. Many people see the leader as in effect "doing nothing" but giving orders but it takes a good organizer to figure out what needs to be done and when as well. It takes a special person to be able to look inside of someone and see how they best can contribute to the whole. :)

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  3. I've usually liked the definition of leaders being out front and managers at the back, organizing. But people do both at once pretty often, so I can see that the analogy is a little too simple. Regardless, I feel that both are undervalued, especially the ability to orchestrate events.

    There's a lot of empathy and forethought involved in doing it well. As you say, there's some of seeing how best each person involved can contribute, how to involve others, knowing how teams will get along, and how the event or series of tasks will fit together in the end.