A long time ago, in a land far, far away…

Does anyone else remember when being called a mentor was something special? Back before we started using it in performance evaluations? Before we had to ask, and maybe pay someone to mentor us? Before it was a buzzword?

I certainly do, and I’m thankful for the group of professionals who served as mentors to me during my occasionally tumultuous military career. They were leaders all, and as I’ve mentioned before, leaders develop leaders… that’s their job.

Take, for instance, the, “Kevin, I’m not trying to change who you are, but you don’t have to be you so hard all the time.” (Thanks, Mike.) I might have used that one a time or two as I tried to pay it forward by passing the lessons I learned to those I’ve led and mentored.

When it comes to developing leaders, I can honestly say I’ve never had an original thought in my life. Not out of an attempt at humility; just recognizing that – wait for it – leadership hasn’t changed much in the last couple thousand years. I’m reasonably sure a much wiser man claimed, “there is nothing new under the sun” long before we started writing books on leadership.

So, having been in touch with more than a couple of those mentors (no, you don’t just stop being a mentor) this past month, it occurred to me that I might share with you of a couple leadership lessons I learned from those who came before me.

  1. Organization charts and fancy titles don’t mean squat to those who look to you for leadership. In fact, there’s a good chance that they’re a source of behind-the-back ridicule. Org charts are history the day you print them, and titles only mean something to someone who think titles mean you’re a leader. Influencing and inspiring others have nothing to do with titles, which are mostly used to insure compliance. I believe if an organization really operates in a line-and-block fashion, it’s doomed to failure.
  2. Your organization accomplishes nothing; your people do. That’s right, all of the strategic planning, goal setting, continuous improvement, team building and mindfulness don’t produce a damn thing; the people that work for you do. Make sure you’re putting your time and effort into creating an environment where your people thrive and feel rewarded for doing worthy work. The organization will be better off for it.
  3. Not everyone is going to like the way you lead. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s inevitable that you’re going to piss some people off along the way. Hard decisions will have to be made, and someone will probably be unhappy about them. Avoiding those decisions in an attempt to keep everybody happy is a bad strategy and will drive your best and brightest away.
  4. Real leaders are accessible. I’m not talking about an “open door” policy; I mean everyone in the organization is comfortable approaching you to discuss a concern or challenge. Why does that matter? If people won’t share their concerns with you, they either don’t have confidence you can help them, or they don’t believe you care. Both are signs of failed leadership.
  5. Authentic leadership isn’t situational. No matter what you’ve heard, there is one right leadership style… and it depends on the situation. That’s not contradictory. Every person you lead is different, making every situation different, and the most important thing about the style of leadership you use is that it’s the real We can tell when someone’s not being genuine, and the people we lead can tell the same thing about us. We lose people’s trust the second they think we’re faking it.

There are others, but I made sure I modeled these five ideas as consistently as possible, so those who came after knew what they looked like in practice. Of course, I’ve also learned some things from my mentors that I tried not to emulate, not always successfully. After all, we’re all human, and they showed me it was okay to make a mistake, own it, and move on… a skill that becomes rarer in corporate America every day.

We weren’t all born with the leadership skills we’re using, and I certainly learned some of mine the hard way. I’d love to hear some of the lessons you’ve learned from your mentors, and I hope you’ll share these with the folks you want to see make a real difference in the future of your organization.

It’s up to you, leaders.

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