I’ve had some great bosses in my career. I’m sure I was not their easiest person to deal with, but they taught me some valuable lessons that I hope I can somehow pass along to the people I work with, report to, and manage.
There are 3 women who, at the top of their professional game, took the time to remind about what makes a great leader. I won’t mention them by name in this post in an effort to focus on the principle, and not the person. (Anyone who knows me well also knows I never shy away from a good chance to kiss-up a bit, but for this post I’ll just refer to these women as pioneers in smart international outreach).
Lesson #1: Just Show Up
I had a boss who turned everything I thought I knew about public diplomacy upside down. When faced with a difficult situation in a country where the relationship between our two nations seemed like it was turning sour, she encouraged us to find opportunities to reach out to groups, places, and audiences that hadn’t heard from us in a while. Instead of retreating to the capital or only talking to the “usual suspects” among our friends and supporters, she encouraged us to find places in the country where we hadn’t been in a long time, where people didn’t take time to visit, and where we could show that we cared about the relationship because we took the time to just show up. I learned the value of this lesson during a weekend when she asked me to travel to a small town a few hours from the capital city to give a speech and participate in a ribbon cutting for a new piece of equipment. It was a relatively small event, but by showing up at the event we sent a message, loud and clear, that we cared about what the community cared about. Our presence there not only helped us build friendships, but produced positive media coverage, and paved the way for a public relations partnership. Sometimes you just need to show up at an event, at a conversation, or as part of an issue. It sends a message even before you say a word, and can make all the difference.
Lesson #2: Just Move On
Have you ever had one of those bosses who seemed perfect? I did. She amazed me with her ability to out-smart, out-perform and out-inspire everyone around her. Every day working for her was like a masterclass in one thing or another. Perhaps that’s why the most important lesson I learned from her wasn’t about achievement, but about dealing with failure. This woman found herself in a situation where we, her team, had miscalculated something we had been asked to do. It wasn’t a life-changing mistake, but it meant that our office would lose face with some of our counterparts and would need to make a formal apology about something that was said in the press. I pained over it. I apologized and was double-checking my every step before doing anything that week so I wouldn’t make another mistake. It felt like we’d let her (and the entire country!) down. She must have sensed what was happening because she brought me and another colleague into her office, shut the door, and opened up one of those honest dialogues that you never forget. “You aren’t useful to me, or this office, if you are moping around about this. We’ll survive. You’ll survive. I took the heat for this because I am the boss. I’ve moved on, and so should you. Now let’s please get to work and do something good for the world before it’s time to go home tonight.” Wow. It was almost as if it had come from a screenplay. My colleague and I (a rather senior member of the military) exchanged a glance that said “how cool is she!?” and immediately returned to our work. The lesson that day was clear. If you lose a battle, you don’t have to surrender the war. It’s as true in inter-office politics as it is in international public relations. The power of just moving on has been something I have tried to instill in my teams, and my approach, ever since.
Lesson #3: Just Dance
One of the best lessons in leadership my boss offered me didn’t take place in the CEO’s office or in the boardroom. It was something she taught me in the hallway when I least expected it. One afternoon I was reviewing some documents with a few of the newer members of our team. It was 5:15pm and we were going over plans for a mini PR campaign that launched the next day. I thought I was giving them solid feedback and was being a good manager by spending time with them on a project. While waxing poetic (or so I thought) about some aspect of the communications plan, I suddenly saw their two faces go pale, as they motioned to me that someone was behind me, listening to our conversation. It was the CEO. She interrupted me and asked me, “Do you know where you are supposed to be?” I looked at my watch, racked my brain for some reminder of what important, Earth shattering meeting I must have missed, and finally confessed that I had no idea. She looked at me scoldingly and, with a playful wag of her finger said, “Aaron, there’s a “Dance Dance Revolution” happy hour upstairs. Why are you keeping your people down here when we all should be upstairs dancing?!” She was right. I had overlooked an important team building experience of another kind. Whether or not I realized it, by being in the office I was sending a message to my junior staff that they too should be down here with me working on press releases instead of releasing some pressure with music, camaraderie and some laughs. The lesson, however, didn’t stop there. She hauled me upstairs and, with some very clear instructions stated “now you and I will show these folks how it’s done.” A few minutes later I was in a dance-off with my boss to the groovy sounds of KC and the Sunshine Band. I am sure I looked like a fool (and fear that somewhere there is a YouTube video that confirms it). But at that moment I was sending a signal to my team about balance. And I was learning one of the best lessons a boss can offer. Sometimes you just need to dance.
I owe a lot to these women. They taught me that leadership isn’t just about what you achieve, but how you get there.