How I Became a Better Leader when I Stopped Leading and Started Working

In 2015 I took the job as the Executive Director of the Florida Consortium and I thought that meant something. After years of toiling in the minor leagues I had finally been called up to pitch on the big stage. Finally I can be the leader I always felt I was destined to be; visionary and decisive. I pictured myself in suits, speaking to groups of eager higher education folk at our three universities; Florida International University, University of Central Florida, and University of South Florida. And I felt that the best way to ensure I was followed was to be a big thinker; regal, and stout. Boy, was I ever wrong. Flash forward four years and I am working with more humility and measure than I have in my career. Because I learned a few things the past few years culminating with the greatest lesson of all – great leaders are also great workers. Most great leaders inspire greatness from their teams by being the hardest worker in the group and using that work ethic to pave the way for the entire team to excel.

In May of 2018 we had some transition in our office. One of our prize employees went on maternity leave and decided to take a job with another group so she could spend more time with her new daughter. Good for her! However, that left a giant hole in our office. She was our best person at organizing and executing the terms of a major faculty development grant in our office. She knew the process, the paperwork, and the terms of the agreement that we were not sure how to advance in her absence.

It was at that time that I stepped in to do many of the tasks she did during her tenure. While I did not complete all of the paperwork as she did I took charge of the process, I developed a workflow to get things done and I spent extra time digging into the grant to assure we were on track. Before these were things I assumed she was doing and thus I could be left alone to lead like a boss. However, over time, I became dependent on this person and stopped engaging in the grant work from a workflow and this weakened the grant process.

It was about that time I read a piece by Leon Neyfakh in the Boston Globe entitled “The Myth of the Visionary Leader”. The central theme of the article was that while most managers and directors are hired for their “charisma and boldness” what most employees really need is a partner who is not trying to inspire everyone to greatness but are leaders who can make decisions in an effective way, are productive, and who know how to solve problems. And the only real effective way to do that is to work on these issues and problems, not just inspire those who are working on the problems. The new pace of leadership for folks like me are based in an ability to be more transactional than transformational.

Once I lifted myself from a need to be more transactional I saw a marked increase in my work product and, by proxy, a better result from those I rely on to get the job done. We completed the Strategic Plan when I sat down and wrote a good majority of it, we planned three great faculty events when our office took control of the planning and implementation. Because of that I learned a few things along the way;

  1. Leaders make their employees jobs easier. For years I felt it was the other way around. I was hiring people I felt made my job easier when, in fact, I needed to work to make their jobs easier. By mapping out how and what targets we needed to meet for success and then leading the effort it streamlined the process, made expectations clear, and helped ensure I understood where we were making progress and where we needed to improve. In return my people felt empowered to make decisions and completed tasks more efficiently.
  2. It made me more assertive. Since I was now more aware of the progress of the event or program that allowed for me to advocate for what the project needed from superiors and speak to diverse groups with an authority I did not previously have. Plausible deniability by disengagement is not a way to run a project.
  3. Test the limits. Before I began to work to lead I was never sure at our capacity for ideas and projects. It was not until I began working directly with these projects that my understanding on how long projects take and how many we can handle improved. I was more sure of where our production limits were and that helped us make better strategic decisions.
  4. Better Relationships. When your employees know you understand them, they tend to return the favor by understanding where you fit as well. This resulted in better workflow because our progress received better diagnosis and the right person for the job got the assignment. Now my people know better what I am good at and how to help me better because I know them.
  5. My People are Real with me. Since I am working right with them and not at them I get better assessments on how they are processing our projects and how they feel they can best utilize their abilities and talents. I maintain an open door policy and our conversations can be more candid because we are working from the same page.
  6. Giving people their space. If I am busy with work we have agreed is good for me to do then I have to give them space to do their jobs. I don’t hover as much as I used to, my dance card is full too. So our team feels more empowered to make decisions because I have my own decisions to make.
  7. We all buy-in. When we all have equal stake in the success of a project then buy-in becomes more apparent. This produces a deeper passion for our work and lightens the load for everyone. When my folks felt isolated on individual projects there was a sense of dread and loneliness and no process to evaluate effectiveness.
  8. It’s just fair. When you work harder than your employees you send a message of inclusion and care. After all, you likely get paid more and enjoy more on the job perks like travel. By backing that up with work then your employees can see why you are the boss.

Above all being a better worker helped me become a better visionary. I knew what questions to ask, I had concrete examples of success where I had first-hand knowledge of that success, I understood the whole project better. This, in turn, helped me to create better reports and provide better information to my superiors and to help guide them when we needed to be advocated for. So now I work to lead not lead workers.

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