The Two Best Bosses You’ll Ever Have – Continuing Lessons from My First Sergeant

It seems like a lifetime ago that I was sitting with another G.I., commenting about my commander in the military.  The animated discussion I was engaged in was with a non-commissioned officer – a “NCO” –  commiserating about actions my commander had taken and how I wish he could somehow be different.

The NCO, a U.S. Army E-8, listened intently and heard my complaints – and my venting – for long minutes.  When I finally stopped, he simply smiled and asked,

“So who are the two best bosses you’ll ever have in your career?”

Non-plussed by the question, I sat there in silence, not really knowing what to say.  By then I had spent enough time in the Army, though, to realize that a senior NCO draws on a lifetime of experience leading people.  For those open to learning, top sergeants are always ready to provide perspectives, often in the form of parables or aphorisms.

The First Sergeant let his question sink in and then restated the question more succinctly:

“Who are the two best bosses you’ll ever have?”

As he continued to smile, he provided an ample pause for thought and then slowly offered this answer:

“Think about this, it’s simple:

The guy who just left and the one who’s coming next.

We hardly ever see the current boss as the person who meets all of our needs.”

My first reaction was that the first sergeant was playing games with me.  I laughed and told him that it didn’t make sense.  He grinned and just stared back, challenging me to think about what I had just heard. He slowly sipped on the black coffee contained in his favorite mug, stained from years of use, patiently letting his message sink in.

The meaning of that first sergeant’s message came to me slowly that day.  And I’ve often thought about it in the years since.  Our perspective as human beings is so often shaped so much by the wish of what we really want or need that we don’t take the time to appreciate what we have.  And we spend so much time wanting our boss to change (or our co-worker, our friend or even our significant other) that we don’t realize that while we can’t change others, we can always change how we react to them.  We can become so hardened in our position that eventually we come to believe that the best solution is that the boss simply “should” change.

I know that many readers have examples of “yes, but” that includes their own “impossible bosses,” who make life miserable for others or just don’t know how to lead.  There are indeed situations that may well be untenable.  In such cases, there are limited options for a person, including suffering through it or, if possible, leaving the job.

And yet so often it is valuable to realize that the boss has his or her own capabilities, just as we do.  And his or her styles might well work for most people.  Understanding how our boss approaches the world is indeed the most important step we can take.  To do that, we must first “meet them where they are.”  That involves making human contact and connection with the coworker who happens to be your boss.  And that may well be the most difficult step, especially if we are fundamentally different in our approaches to the workplace and the communication inherent in it.

An important thing to remember is that we can feel resistance in ourselves when someone is different from us.  That resistance must be met with curiosity about what we are truly feeling.  By naming it – be it discomfort with communication styles or even values – we can help ourselves name that discomfort.  And understanding that the boss can feel resistance towards you is of equal importance.  Again, curiosity is our best approach to lean into the resistance we think we feel from the boss.

I have worked with clients who avoid their supervisor or manager because they feel their boss doesn’t understand them.  Initially, this might help us cope, but it can’t help us understand how we can change the way we react to them.  It’s best to lean into what we feel as resistance and use curiosity as our best tool in such situations.  Think carefully about how you word questions to anyone and especially your boss.  The open-ended “What communication style works best for you?” opens up possibilities, while something binary like, “You don’t like my emails do you?” can foreclose any connection or growth.  So too, the statement “I’d value time with you,” is an opening to a larger conversation that can be filled with development of the relationship.

There will always be bosses with whom you just “click.”  And there will be others where you have to work hard in establishing how you react to them.  My guess, based on that old first sergeant’s advice, is that one of those will be the best boss you ever had.  It’s your choice.

This article originally appeared on bostonexecutivecoaches.com.

 

The Path to Reopening: Leadership in Times of Crisis

In the past two months, I have had the opportunity to witness teams facing the most challenging situations they have ever experienced. It is an honor to be working with such remarkable leaders during these times, be they involved with companies, governmental groups, or non-profit organizations.

Daily, I learn how they regularly meet the challenges of this crisis.  The teams and their leaders do it with ingenuity, caring, and a focus on problem-solving and learning.  While each story is unique, there is a remarkable consistency in how the best leaders and the strongest teams approach the situations they are now facing.

The path to reopening is a subject that is both fraught with emotion and shaded with a multitude of opinions.  The teams that meet the challenges seek to embrace and understand those aspects of the crisis and then bring to bear tools that serve them in any circumstance. Read More…

Leadership in Times of Crisis: Vulnerability as a Strength

Leaders emerge during times of crisis, formal titles or not.  They provide support, strength, and vision for those around them.  And they give something else of themselves: vulnerability.

Our presence as leaders is not only about projections or manifestations of strength.  It is about being open to the concept of vulnerability – which, paradoxically, in and of itself is a strength.

Is there anyone in the world today who does not feel vulnerable?

In speaking with leaders in recent days, I find that many are struggling with their personal situations (working at home with young children, for instance), as well as their own insecurities and fears.  They confess to me that they are reluctant to tell others what they are experiencing, although they realize the emotions they feel are universal.  These leaders sometimes conclude that telling others what they are experiencing might be a sign of weakness.

I ask my clients “What do you feel vulnerable about now?” and “How would it serve you and your team by talking about it?”  Also, “How can you best establish a connection with your people during this crisis?”  Finally, “What do you think your people concerned about?”

What emerges from their answers?   That opening up on a personal level is what people need.  And a leader who speaks of his or her own challenges opens up the possibilities for others to speak about theirs.  That solidifies the connection – that human contact – which is so important to each of us. Read More…

Faith and the Optimistic Stance

Faith is a word which elicits different thoughts and emotions for each of us.  For some, it is a sense of trusting others or implicitly knowing we are understood or respected.  For others, it can be the feeling that we will always be encouraged by our friends, colleagues and fellow travelers, especially in time of need.  And for many, like me, it is centered on a belief in a higher power.  Often, it is all of those things combined – and more.

Faith and optimism are intertwined.  One cannot truly believe that something positive will happen in the future without taking a metaphorical leap of faith that is centered in optimism.  Be it a soldier looking over in the foxhole at the man next to him or the coworker with whom you’ve worked for years – it takes faith and optimism to know that the other person will always have your back when the challenges – and battles – confront us.

My colleagues at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC) have a wonderful perspective called the “Optimistic Stance.”  Their outlook says, “Gestalt takes a realistic view of the present and an optimistic view of the possible, preferring to work in the development of the potential within an individual or system rather than correcting them.”   In other words, they see each system, be they families, teams or much larger groups, as having inherent capabilities that can be appreciated and noticed.  Once they are pointed out, growth is unleashed, which serves every system. Read More…

The Calm in the Center of the Storm

calm in the center of the storm

As we face today’s challenges and uncertainties, we are all experiencing emotions and thoughts that we have seldom, if ever, confronted before.

Life indeed throws challenges our way.  And those challenges have varying degrees of uncertainty.  The end result is a sort of disorientation that, to most of us, can be downright scary.  It’s akin to being on a ship in the middle of a stormy sea, or an airplane experiencing severe turbulence.  Few of us have been in such situations and therefore cannot know either the duration or the outcomes that might occur.  Consequently, we can become lost in our own thoughts and emotions, filled with recurring worry about the future.

And we can feel alone.

These are the times that each of us needs to take a turn being the calm in the center of the storm.  And it is not just the leaders in organizations that can and should do it.  It is everyone. Read More…

A Platform for Learning: The Role of a Sponsor in Executive Coaching

platform for learning

“Yes, my boss fully supports the idea of my receiving executive coaching,” a prospective client answers. “And the company will pay for it – they see it as an investment!”

Those are great words to hear from a client as she or he begins the exciting journey of executive coaching. Such a message provides a sense of the support the client is receiving from the company and from the individual to whom they report – their boss.

As we set the stage for coaching engagements, the boss, who usually serves as the “sponsor” for the coaching, is a critical part of the process. Oftentimes, though, I sense that while the boss is a strong supporter of the idea, the role of sponsorship might be so new to him that he is not able to fulfill this critical role in a manner that will best facilitate the coaching for the client.

So what is the role of a sponsor in executive coaching? Essentially it is about building a platform for learning.

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Masterful Leaders – The Leader as Coach, Mentor and Teacher

Graphics Courtesy of Fuller Design

Among the many attributes a leader must possess, the most important is the ability to effortlessly transition from one leadership approach to another, in effect gliding between styles that best serve the developmental needs of those individuals they serve.  Truly masterful leaders know how and when to bring those approaches to bear.

A leader can be a mentor some of the time, a coach on other occasions, and a teacher when it is useful.  Think of the three attributes – Mentor, Coach and Teacher – as some of the most powerful tools in your leadership toolbox.

Each can serve the needs of others.  And notice that I intentionally don’t use the word “subordinate,” because we often are serving the needs of colleagues or team members and even bosses that have a desire to grow.  It’s an important distinction, especially considering that sometimes those we serve end up being in positions that might later have a higher “rank” in the chain of command.  In effect, we take turns leading others, but if the habits are there to help others on their developmental journeys, does it really matter what position she or he holds?  In that regard, I often use the famous Chaucer quote, “And gladly would he learn and gladly teach,” to remind myself and clients of that philosophy.

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Assume Capability Not Intent

Assume Capability

“Assume capability, not intent,” is part of a military maxim used in intelligence.  While somewhat more arcane when employed in intelligence, its shortened form can serve as an effective and simple reminder of how to approach those with whom we interact in the business world.

Have you ever sat in a meeting and watched the people around the table and started writing your own narrative about them? Your thoughts range from:

“He doesn’t care,” you say about one person.

“She has an agenda she’s trying to push,” you smugly say to yourself about another.

And then there is the inevitable, “He’s lazy and doesn’t want to get the job done.”

What’s the common denominator of such narratives?  They are all judgment based and blindly come to conclusions about the intent of each individual, based on nothing more than opinion and feelings.  As such they do nothing to enhance our personal and professional relationships and thus materially contribute to distrust, making them detrimental to how a team operates.

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Leadership Lessons I Learned from My First Sergeant (Part I)

army soldier in forest

As an Army officer, I technically out-ranked any enlisted man.  That included the first sergeant, the ranking non-commissioned officer in any company.

Technicalities aside, my WWII veteran father had educated me early that the first sergeant was really the guy in charge.   The opportunity, my Dad told me, was to learn from the first sergeant.  I’m glad I did.

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