On Leadership

One of the most important lessons I learned when I was growing into a leader of men is that we do not have authority over any other human being, we have only influence. At first I was confused. I was part of an official organization that was built on discipline and compliance. If my men did not do as they were told, they would be ‘disciplined’ accordingly – ranging from extra duty or small losses of pay all the way up to being discharged in a way that would follow them for the rest of their life and make it difficult to obtain gainful employment. I was also in a position to give commands to people who were not under my command but were under my control simply because they were in my area of operations. I was not only allowed, but in fact trained and encouraged, to use intimidation and actual force to ensure my directives were complied with.

I’m sure some of you are bored by this language, and I apologize, this is the way my mind works, and it is relevant to my point.

All was well with the cosmos. I did my job and came home and everyone lived happily ever after. More on that in another post.

I moved on in life and in my career. I became an instructor at what can be best described as a boot camp for troubled and at-risk youth. It was a great place for me, and others like me, to work. We took kids off the streets and out of jail cells, brought them to a facility in the middle of nowhere and forged them into productive members of society. That was the idea, anyway, and we did a fair job of it. We had a markedly higher success rate than any other facility of our type, and a one-hundred percent higher success rate than any juvenile detention centers. A whole hundred-percent, not exaggerating at all. This place still exists, in fact, and it is still very successful. It has shifted its focus from criminals and delinquents to high-needs kids, but they still do an admirable job of improving the lives of youth.

We took these kids out of their hostile environments and offered them a chance to learn skills for a better life. I’m not talking about little Timmy here, I’m talking about seventeen to twenty-one year old drug dealers and gang members and punks who grew up in a world that is dominated by violence and hustle. My job was to supervise, instruct, coach and counsel these young men through every facet of their daily lives. I would come into the building early in the morning, wake them up, give them time to conduct their hygiene routines and get dressed and set expectations for the day, all in a controlled and timely manner. I literally stood by the bathroom door and counted down the three minutes while they attended to their morningly needs, two at a time, for a group of twenty-four. Usually it was sunshine and lollipops. Sometimes they would fight each other, sometimes they would assault staff members, sometimes they would try to run away, they did all kinds of crazy shit. I once had to cut a kid’s bed sheet off his bunk after he wrapped it tight around his neck and tried to hang himself from the post. It was challenging. It was engaging. It was fulfilling.

We took the kids, in groups, through every element of their day, supervising meals, conducting group physical exercise, assisting teachers in academic and vocational classrooms, facilitating life-skills lessons for the kids, providing and proving positive role models for these young men to learn from. Every minute of every day was controlled. I worked sixteen-hour shifts three days a week, and nine hours on shift-change days.

Aside from being a father and a husband, this was, and still is by far, the most fulfilling thing I have ever done in my life.

I did well at this and got myself promoted. I was placed in charge of a group of men who did all the things described above. I had to mentor, teach, train and supervise a large group of often reluctant, violent or belligerent students, and ensure that my staff could do it just as well as I could.

Things changed. I thought the answer to everything was Because I said so. My rudimentary ideal of leadership was compliance and control. I thought that I could force people to do what I told them to. I had multiple options that equated to absolute authority – there was no way around me, my wishes will be met one way or the other, end of conversation. Once I started leading other men in my former position, I saw that they didn’t always have the same results that I did. They would try to force things and they would often turn sideways. I remembered hearing once that I, as an ultimate bad-ass LEADERMAN, did not have any actual authority. I had influence. I thought about this.

I thought about the tools I used. I stick to the program, fidelity to the stated objective and prescribed procedures. Everything is business, don’t take it or make it personal. Think about the why whenever you give someone a task, that way you can explain it in detail and give expectations while you are assigning tasks and avoid any questions. The time for questions is later, when the task is complete, not before it gets done, and you can easily avoid power struggles. Everyone deserves to know why they are doing something, but they do not have the privilege of arguing or debating, being insubordinate, so part of my job as a leader is to explain things in detail so they are satisfied with the why. Nine times out of ten, the content of the message isn’t the issue, it is how the content is delivered. Be respectful and kind. Just because you have strict policies does not mean you have to be an ass about it. These practices are what allowed me to be a successful leader.

The function of a leader, supervisor, manager, coach, whatever you are called, is to convince people to do things for you or for the people you represent. Often these things are difficult or unpleasant. Your job is to get people to do them as effectively and efficiently as possible. You should always be aware of the human element when you are creating policies and procedures. If you treat people like they are valuable you will start to see just how valuable they are.

The answer is not because I said so, the answer is because it needs to get done and I’m giving you the knowledge and materials to do it and I’m asking nicely. If you don’t want to do it then that’s fine, fuck off and I’ll find someone who will.

The purpose is not to bluntly force people into obeying, kowtowing before me and acquiescing to my whims because I am an amazing awesome person. The purpose is to work together to complete a given task and feel good about it when it is done.

Leadership involves a lot of finesse. A lot of manipulation. A lot of leading the horse to water and convincing it that it is thirsty. A lot of influencing people to think or act in a certain way.

Anyway, back to the story, I changed the way I thought about leadership, changed the way I trained people and hence how they thought about leadership, and things improved.

Reading this I’m not sure where it lost its cohesion,  but I think the message still comes through. Essentially, you get a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar, don’t be a dick, lead from the front, yatta yatta yatta.

Thanks guys.





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