The irony of a good leader: knowing when to follow.

Well before I entered the workforce, my dad would tell me about “the best boss he ever had.”

As a 10-year old, I didn’t understand why he felt the need to repeat it to me on a regular basis. (Sorry, dad).

“Without fail, the first thing he would always ask me, is ‘how is your family?’ The rest doesn’t matter if your family isn’t well.” Only after they’d catch-up about his family life would they move on to work topics.

And then I entered the workforce. I had been through 3 managers in my first year. By the time my 4th one started, I was feeling burnt out, less than optimistic about yet another transition and, most of all, concerned that she was remote.

I had overly prepared for our first call; I had notes of where all the work currently stood, a list of my skills and what I needed help with, and my future-plans for myself in the organization.

She didn’t ask me about any of that.

“Tell me about yourself!” She said. In my mind, it was an interview question. In her mind, it was a get-to-know-this-human-on-the-other-end-of-the-phone question

When I started rambling about my job, she stopped me — “wait, wait. Shut the computer. Tell me about YOU. Do you like living in Detroit? Do you have siblings?”

Somehow, in that conversation, I confided in her that I was totally burnt out and ready to look for something new. She asked me to give her a chance to change her mind; she had been with the company 10 years and wanted me to love it the way she did.

She gained my trust, and I stayed.

I had never experienced having a manager like her before, but it’s because she was a leader.

She took the time to get to know ME. She listened without judgement. She told me when I was wrong. She taught me to pick and choose my battles. And I listened, because she earned my trust. And she led by example.

She saw something in me that I truly did not see.

Even when I hadn’t touched a project with a 10-foot pole, she would say “we” worked on it together.¬† I was her team. My failures were here failures; my successes were her successes. (If you’ve worked for a manager who says “I” and not “we,” you know how quickly that gets old.)

On a business trip, we were standing outside the room right before the biggest meeting of my career when she dropped a bomb on me in such a nonchalant manner: “You did all the work for this, so you should be the one presenting it. I’ll take the notes.”

I had prepared her on the talk track for weeks. “You know it better than anyone, and certainly better than me.” After kicking off the meeting, she handed it right over to me. She barely spoke after that. (And she took the most detailed notes).

She took no credit for the success of that meeting. And she celebrated the hell of it with me.

Her approach in that meeting might not work for all people. But she knew ME. She knew I would over-prepare, psych myself out and let imposter syndrome creep in. She tailored her style to suit me. FOR ME.

Using a one-size-fits-all is a management tactic, not the characteristic of a “leader.” It’s hard to inspire when you’re using the same “tips and tricks” on everyone. 

I started my job search the day she put in her 2-week notice.

She taught me 2 important lessons by embodying them:

(1) When you move up the ladder, your work is done through your people. And it’s a big shift – especially for first time managers who are used to DOING the work and getting the results. Your successes are your teams successes.

(2) Knowing when to lead and when to follow.

1 Comment

  1. Amy Slowik September 30, 2022 at 12:51 am

    Shereen, you are so wise. You always have been, always will be. It would be my pleasure to follow you!

    Reply

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