Many visions envelope my head as I reflect on the word, “Exceptional”. Exceptional performance. Exceptional behavior. Exceptional service. Exceptional children. Exceptional teamwork. Exceptional leadership.
Having just completed day 2 of a 3 day leadership program sponsored by my company, I pause to reflect on EXCEPTIONAL LEADERSHIP. In my career, I have been fortunate to have the pleasure and benefit of working for an exceptional leader, one like whom many people can only wish. What made him exceptional was not merely what he accomplished, though we could point to a host of awards and trophies he had earned throughout his career. What made him exceptional wasn’t that his expertise was sought by many, though it was. What made him exceptional was that he genuinely cared about developing people to be the very best that they could be. I knew that he “had my back” and that I could count on him for support and encouragement. He took the word MENTOR as seriously as I wish everyone would.
When I struggled with a particular strategy, or business decision, it would have been easy for him to simply tell me the answer the way many “leaders” would. Instead, he would ask leading and open ended questions to help me determine the best answer. He coached me through various options, gently guiding me in thought processes to help develop the right decision for the situation.
Three particular examples stand out in my mind. First, he took a chance on me. Prior to being hired into my first formal leadership role, I worked as a supplier quality engineer. He took a chance that I could make the leap from independent contributor to manager. During my first year in that role, I lamented the fact that, although “TEAMWORK” was defined as one of our companies’ core competencies, I saw great opportunities to improve within my team alone. I had devised a rather unconventional program to develop teamwork within my team, consisting of a variety of teaming activities designed to help break down the walls of my team members to help them build relationships to enable better performance. My leader believed in me enough to allow me the freedom to try something new and innovative. Although I was criticized by other managers for holding these events, he continued to support me and allowed me the freedom to develop the program so that it could develop the people in my group to be the best they could be.
In the second example, our company was introducing a new way of doing something, and I was at the forefront of it. It wasn’t specifically my idea. However, because of the position I held, it was a natural decision that I become the driver behind the culture change, which you might guess was met with resistance across the larger organization. The change was frightening. In this case, the change required a bit more work due to the regulatory nature of our work, and though not a popular idea, was one that must be introduced if we wanted our company to continue operating in the current spaces. My leader allowed me to become the “expert” in the area, learning the intimate details of how to accomplish what needed to be accomplished. He became my Roadblock Removal Champion. I relied on him for support whenever we had to present our position to the President of the company, and he paved the way to get the support we needed from the President. He didn’t do it for me; he made me do it. But he coached me through my approach, providing tweaks where necessary, and he truly paved the way and removed necessary roadblocks.
The next example involves a mis-hire. The position reported to me and was actually a key position in the paradigm shift mentioned above. We were looking to bring some “expertise” to the new processes, so we reviewed resumes from people who had been performing this type of work. We found what we thought to be a promising candidate, who “wowed” us with his knowledge. My leader and I were both on the interview team who decided to hire this man. About 3 months into his employment, I noticed some inconsistencies in his behavior and his performance, and I voiced my concerns to my leader. We discussed various aspects of my suspicions, and facts gathered, etc. I could tell he didn’t completely agree with my decision on how to handle the situation, and he gave me some alternatives. He asked me to think about the alternatives over a weekend and let me know that he would support whatever decision I made. When we reconvened the following Monday, I reaffirmed my original decision, which in this case was to terminate employment. True to his word, he supported my decision and had my back, despite possibly having a different opinion. In that instance, he allowed me to make the decision that I thought was best, knowing that even if it was the wrong decision, I would learn from the experience.
I could site many other examples of his exceptional leadership, and reasons why I count him a mentor still today, though we have both moved on to different roles and responsibilities. For me, an exceptional leader is not the one who seeks the glory, but the one who strives to develop people to be the very best they can be. Through servant leadership, exceptional leaders accomplish much through their influence. Further, their leadership transcends their role, and ultimate bears fruit in generations of leaders borne out of their abilities. I am forever grateful to have had a wonderful experience with an exceptional leader. (Thank you – you know who you are).