Updated: May 26
Something happens to some people when they become leaders of people.
They transform from a normal, run-of-the-mill, hardworking, decent human being into a complete arse who no-one wants to work with.
How does this happen?
Well, let me tell you my own [horror] story.
I got my first corporate leadership position in my late-twenties. Having competed against far more seasoned leaders, I was understandably proud of my success. I launched myself into my new role with the enthusiasm and energy of, well, an inexperienced, overly-energetic, twenty-something ambitious young woman who thought she had all the answers (but none of the questions) and the drive to 'change everything' in the first three weeks.
I fell flat on my face.
Within the first six weeks, my [seasoned] team called a meeting with me. Yes, they called a meeting with me. That should have been the first sign that something was amiss. I arrived at the motorway hotel full of vim and vigour, ready to get down to whatever business they wanted to discuss. When I walked into the meeting room they were already there, seated in a horseshoe with just one chair positioned in the open area: That was my seat. That should have been the second sign that things were not going to go as I anticipated. But I took my seat, confident that we were going to engage in a productive discussion. What followed, no-one could ever have prepared me for.
Following a brief introduction, they proceeded to tell me that I was trying to fix things that weren't broken, that my approach was rude and abrasive, that I dismissed their individual and collective experience and, despite what I thought, I might not know better. They told me that I talked without listening, I withheld information (intentionally or not; they didn't know), and I seemed to assume that leadership was about telling people what to do.
Basically, they told me I was a complete arse.
I was stunned. I remember gulping my Earl Grey to try to moisten my very dry mouth. I remember the gut-wrenching grip of anxiety and the overwhelmingly large tennis-ball-sized lump that had lodged itself in my throat. I wanted to run from that room, screaming and crying and pulling at my hair, declaring to the world that I'd been massively wronged and misunderstood
But I didn't. Because deep down I knew they were right.
I took a very deep breath to steady my voice and I said, "I'm sorry. I had no idea." Then another deep breath and a gulp of Earl Grey and I blurted out, "What can I do to fix this?"
For the next two hours (maybe it was thirty minutes... it felt like two hours), they provided concrete examples of what I could do differently, and how. I listened. Their collective experience was four-times my life-span, and their collective wisdom immeasurable, so I shut up and opened up.
That day was one of the most valuable - if not the most valuable - in my leadership career.
Following that meeting, I went home and pickled my newly learned lessons with copious amounts of Chablis and Cadbury's Dairy Milk.
I implemented most of what they suggested and the following year I went on to win 'Regional Manager of the year' and the team won 'Region of the year'. The year after that I won RM of the year again, the team won again, and individually, the team cleaned up.
This last weekend, when my father-in-law asked me why I do what I do, I told him this story. He got it instantly.
Whilst I was a new leader when I ventured into the world of leadership 'arsedome', it's not always the case. I was one of the lucky ones. I screwed up early and I screwed up big. And I had a team of people brave enough to tell me that I was off-script, and patient enough to stick with me while I fixed it. However, many leaders get to this later in their careers; often when people are in awe of them or fear them and won't tell them the truth.
Wherever you are in your leadership career, I encourage you to create your own personal 'arsedometer'. Ask yourself:
If someone spoke to me like that (the way you speak to others), would I be okay with it? Really?
Am I being reasonable? Really? How do I know?
How did that person look when I said/did that? How did they react?
Do people tell me the [ugly] truth? Really? How do I know?
Am I leading or dictating? Really? How do I know?
As we progress through our leadership careers, our ability to connect with and relate to people becomes more and more important. Our technical skills fade into the background as our ability to influence and impact takes centre stage.
Being a leader, any kind of leader in any organization, is a massive privilege. You may have worked your tail off to get there, but that does not give you the right to be an arse. As few people will call you out until it's too late, it's up to you to monitor your own behaviour. Look in the mirror and be brutally honest with yourself. And if you're being an arse, say you're sorry and then fix it.
You'll be very grateful you did.