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Rob and Tom

Tom heard his phone buzz, looked down at it, and smiled; it is a text from Rob, a young coworker who had accepted a new position in the company as a team lead. His new role is several hundred miles away, and Tom is missing their weekly lunches. 

Putting his hands behind his head, he leans back in his office chair and remembers Rob, fresh out of college, so full of enthusiasm for his new position with the company. He put a recommendation for Rob to join the company at the end of Rob’s internship. Rob shares his natural curiosity about many things and bonded with him as a mentor. Two years on and now Rob is beginning the largest test of his young career. 

Rob: Hey Tom, I start my new position in a couple of days. I don’t mind saying I am a nervous wreck. I study leadership and listen to leadership podcasts. It seems everyone has their own take on it. With so many ”experts” and their steps and laws of leadership, the leadership water gets muddied. 

Tom: Rob, it is good to hear from you! I was waiting to communicate with you until your move slowed down. Like you, I find leadership interesting to study. A majority of what you see and read about is on the concept of servant leadership. I practice many of the servant leadership concepts. Looking at all the leadership noise, you will find a narrow set of core principals. The mud you observe is leadership gurus needing to separate themselves from the crowd. I want you to think about what those core principles might be. 

Tom: An exercise I did with my children as they started working in high school was to point out examples in their workplace of good and bad leadership. I wanted them to file those away for future reference. Chances are they will end up as leader in their career. You have experienced different workplaces. Look back at what you consider good and bad leadership.

Rob: Overlapping principals of servant leadership includes empathy, listening, trust, stewardship, building up others. There are more, but this is off of the top of my head. It seems I need a list at my desk so I can be sure I am staying on track with them.

Tom: Making a list of principles is good for creating your leadership style, but it is not good to use for a checklist. I find too many young “leaders” burn themselves out attempting to comply with a list generated by “experts”. They add pressure to themselves, trying to maintain the perfect leadership balance. Soon they are hopping from leadership fire to another leadership fire. Instead, do you see something in common with what you would list?

Rob: I understand where the list is, a list of being a good person. I mean, this is how I should be, whether or not I am at work. It seems if you are living these principles twenty-four hours a day, they would soon become a natural part of you.

Tom: Exactly, servant leadership is not something you turn on and off. It is who you are and not a list. Many leadership gurus say you can teach leadership to anyone. I agree to a point. You can teach the principals of leadership, but the student has to want to live the principals to be effective. People will quickly spot a person who is not a committed servant leader. Once you lose credibility as a leader, it is very hard to gain back. Your people want you to be honest in your leadership, regardless of your style.

Rob: I am getting the picture of true leadership being a simple concept rather than something complex. The more complicated you make leadership, the easier it is to fail. 

Tom: You are beginning to view the overall picture. I wanted you to discover the big picture on your own. I often search for the big picture before filling in the details. You will get the leadership start you desire if start your leadership journey by not getting bogged down with detail. There is time enough to explore the details.

Rob: Pondering the first day and I have not decided just how I should approach it.

Tom: What is important to you?

Rob: Well, everyone needs to get to introduce themselves. We do need to work as a team. In order for them to follow me as a leader, they will need to trust that I have their backs. 

Tom: There is something you left out. Expectations on what they can expect from you, the team lead and what you expect from them. You are the leader. Unlike what you read, your group will want to be involved in decision making and they will want you to decide. It is human nature for it to be this way. 

Rob: I had not considered setting expectations as part of my introduction. It makes sense from the beginning that, as the leader, I set expectations for the group. Of the places I worked, when the leader sets the expectations, work flows much better.

Tom: Consider expectations as an empty container. The container boundary is the group expectations and how to meet the expectations is flexible and developed inside the container. It is called freedom within a framework. I expect you will find the concept of freedom within a framework to be useful throughout your career.

Rob: I get it. A group needs the rigidity of expectations with the flexibility of being able to adapt to meet those expectations. 

Tom: I feel like setting expectations is not talked about in leadership enough. If you think about it, a leader is a mentor, a coach, a cheerleader and at times has to put their foot down and say this is the way we are moving forward. Not everything can be left for the team to buy in. They hired you to move your department forward. Only experience will teach the wisdom of how to apply each.

Tom: My father tells the story of when he worked at a piano manufacturer as a plant manager. He approached the sanding department, intending to review the processes. The employees in the sanding department explained to him they would rather take care of the operation of the department. His response was, you know what is expected for quality and schedule. As long as you meet those expectations, I will stay out of it. They held up their end of the deal and he held up his. 

Rob: That is a great example. 

Tom: He has an example of when setting expectations and then being too rigid. He was the production manager at an office furniture manufacturer. In working to improve efficiency in the plant, he and the drawer building supervisor set up a drawer building station. They set up the tools and workflow for the builder. One day they walked past, and the builder had rearranged the station. They asked him why he had rearranged the work area and he replied; you made this station for a right-handed person and I am left-handed.

Rob: I can recognize as a leader, observation and asking questions before acting can save headaches. A carefully crafted process can go wrong if you do not confer with the people doing the work. 

Tom: It is important to maintain credibility if you are going to receive honest answers. Too many times, a manager will ask questions about a process only to use the answer to criticize the employee or trap them in an impossible situation. That manager will only get answers to please the boss from then on.

Rob: Ok, Tom, so on my first day I need to lead by example and share my story and expectations before having the group to introduce themselves. 

Tom: It is important to set achievable expectations. Even more important is to live up to the expectations you set for yourself with the group. I know with careful consideration you will have a great first day. 

Part – 2

Rob: I had our meet and greet meeting yesterday. I felt like it went well for the most part. I could see hesitation in my new group. Following your advice, I let them know my background, how I approach my new role and my expectations for them and myself. We spent the rest of the day going over how the department has been accomplishing its work goals. 

Tom: Hesitation is to be expected. Many people have had new bosses come in and tell them how to do their jobs. Rather than talk to them about what their role in the group is and ask them how they can assist them in their job. You are going to have to earn their trust through your actions. The quickest way to build trust is to start with what they call the low hanging fruit. Solve the issues that are easiest to solve first. Some issues you find might seem silly, but two or three silly issues add up to a big issue. 

Rob: How do I spot the “low hanging fruit”? 

Tom: Two words, honest communication. Ask sincere questions and then close your mouth and listen without judgment. Adopt the attitude I can learn from anyone. So many managers think they are the boss because they know all the answers. They don’t consider their people may have worked in different places and seen the work done in differing ways. They also don’t understand people in their charge might be at a higher or different stage of maturity.

Rob: Yes, a person forgets we all have our individual experiences, and the team will benefit from the collective experience of the group. It is my job to show the way on collaboration. I can see as the leader does, so does the group.

Tom: I hope you can see now the base of being a leader starts with a connection with your people. You are building towards being known as a leader, but that only happens when your people decide you are trustworthy enough to lead them. I hope you can see why I did not want you to start with a checklist of what a leader should be. I want you focused on the fundamentals of relationships.

Tom: As you develop your leadership skill, you find out it is contagious. Much like one rotten apple spoils the barrel, effective leadership spreads leadership amongst your team.

Part - 3

Rob: Tom, there has been something on my mind as I have studied servant leadership. It is empathy. I am trying hard to hard to understand how young people such as myself with limited life experience can show empathy in more than a narrow set of circumstances. The definition of empathy being “The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.” 

Tom: You are really going to put me through my paces with this one. So many young people in a leadership position misunderstand empathy and sympathy, then burn themselves out emotionally. The first thing I want you to do is look up the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Rob: If I distill the two into one sentence, it would be, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, while sympathy is the feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. There is definitely a difference. 

Tom: Which do you think most people use? When I envision empathy and sympathy, I think of the following.

Empathy: When seeing a coworker in emotional distress at their desk, I get on their level by pulling up a chair, sitting down and asking if I can be of help. In other putting myself on their level regardless of the situation. I let them talk and do not interrupt.

Sympathy: When seeing a coworker in emotional distress at their desk, I stand there and ask what is wrong. Upon hearing their dilemma, I give my this is what you need to do and say things will get better and walk away.


Part - 4

Which method can actually make the person feel worse? All you have to do is look at your own life experience to find the answer.

Rob: Sympathy can make you feel like the other person is looking down on you. It is easy to feel you are being judged. 

Tom: In my opinion, empathy is connecting and sharing through communication. You are not taking on their burden; you are helping them unload their burden. Most people don’t want others to solve their problems they just want to release the mental stress they are feeling. Whether they admit it, everyone gets to where feeling safe to share and internal stress is needed. 


Rob: Hey Tom, the ability to be a listener keeps coming up as a necessary trait of a good leader. I want to get your take on listening.

Tom: Rob, in my experience there are two types of listening. What I call listening to and listening at. Listening to is intending to learn from the other person or to understand what they are saying. Listening at is selectively hearing only a portion of what is being said for giving a response.

I guess you could say there is a third type of listening or non listening and that is just simply not caring about what is being said at all.

Rob: I can see where in any conversation listening is a matter of intention. That intention can be productive or it can be ineffective.

Tom: Much conflict results from listening at and non listening. I would almost say listening at is non listening and, as you say, ineffective. I see conversations that are, in reality, who knows best contests. There are many types of conversation, from technical, to general, to personal, but the principals of listening are the same for each.

Rob: An example that comes to mind is the standard “how are you doing” greeting. In this case, what is the intent of the question and was the person really interested in the answer? I feel like more people ask intending to listen at the answer and rather than to the answer. Or just not listening at all.

Tom: That is a good example of intent having a positive effect on someone’s day or adding to the stress they may already be feeling. It happens quickly, so before we ask we need to ask ourselves, are we asking because it is a feel good question or are we asking so we can listen to the answer? I guarantee the person being asked knows the intent. My opinion is do not ask if you are not interested in the answer.

Rob: A leader can have an enormous influence on the people of their group in how they listen during conversation regardless of context. A leader who is a careful listener can more easily understand the dynamics of their group. A leader who listens intending to maintain a healthy work environment will succeed more often than not.

Tom: Very well said Rob.

Rob: I get that. 

© Alan Simpson

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