There was a time in my life that I abhorred the phrase “everything rises and falls on leadership.” I’m still not a big fan of the saying, but mainly because I think most people misuse or misunderstand it.
I’ll also admit that I’m not a fan of the phrase because the words still sting a bit due to past experience. Let me share why.
The Story of An Untrained Leader
Years ago, when I was fresh out of college, I was hired as a band director for a private school. Now, knowing my training and experience, this is problem number one in the tale I’m about to tell. I was a vocal major in college, with an emphasis in church music, so my band and orchestra training consisted of nothing more than the bare minimums my major required for graduation. So, all in all, I probably shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, and if I’d had better options at the time I wouldn’t have taken the job.
One year during Christmas season, the 15-piece stage band that I’d started was scheduled to play music in the lobby for a big event. That year our band had a really fantastic instrumentalist, so many of the songs I’d chosen featured this student as a soloist. Everything was going well until I began to check the roll and realized that he was late. The minutes ticked away and he didn’t show.
My ultimate supervisor was in attendance, so I went to him in a panic, explained what was going on, and asked what I should do. You know what his response was? He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, Jeff, everything rises and falls on leadership,” then turned his back on me.
I felt like I’d been slapped. I went to ask for help and leadership advice but ended up shamed and embarrassed. I walked away feeling like an utter failure—the entire situation was obviously my fault—my fault this kid’s parents didn’t bother bringing him to play because they didn’t think it was worth their time to drive across town. I later learned this was precisely why the student never showed up.
My face still burns a little 20 years later.
In this moment I was a scared, clueless, panicked kid who went to someone he respected for help. This leader and mentor let a teachable moment slip past. He didn’t bring it up again and never pulled me aside to talk about what happened or what I could have done to avoid the situation and how to avoid similar situations in the future.
I never went and asked him for help or advice again.
It wasn’t until my annual review that this event reared its ugly head again—as a black mark on my employment record. I got dressed down for letting it happen, experiencing the shame afresh.
Not once was a single word spoken to help me become the leader I’d apparently failed to be. Not once was I shown by my leaders how to be a better leader. The prevailing attitude was one of, “we hired you to be a leader, so we expect you to lead.”
The Vicious Cycle of Bad Leadership
Am I attempting to deflect all responsibility for my failure? Absolutely not—this situation was a complete failure of leadership on my part. In hindsight, I can see that I shouldn’t have relied on this particular student and his parents—they had exhibited similar behavior in the past. I can see now that I could have handled the situation itself differently. My band had some music prepared that didn’t require this soloist’s presence, but in the moment I panicked, froze, and failed to look for a solution.
But this is where having a supervisor looking over my shoulder to help me navigate could have prevented all this from happening. It really should have been a no-brainer to keep tabs on a kid fresh out of college who wasn’t much older than the students he’d been tasked to lead. Instead, I was pretty much left to myself. The only feedback I ever received from my supervisors was either discipline when something went wrong or at my annual review.
The truth is that I was an extremely weak leader in those days. I was insecure, under-skilled, untrained, and in over my head. As a result, my own leadership style turned acerbic and dictatorial—demanding obedience and respect as a right. On my best days I was bossy to my students, while on my worst I should have been fired on the spot. I’d abandoned the role of teacher altogether because that was the style of leadership which had been modeled for me. Unfortunately, I can honestly say this was one of the hallmarks of my eight years of teaching at two different schools.
To any former students of mine who may read this—I’m so very sorry.
I don’t want to sound like I’m throwing my old supervisor under the bus. Rather, I hope I’m making a strong enough point to any leaders who read this about how great an opportunity and responsibility you have as a leader to educate and build up your team members.
Leaders Take Time to Teach Leadership
Do you have employees you are responsible for supervising? Are you a team leader of any sort? Guess whose job it is to ensure they succeed?
You see, I do agree that everything rises and falls on leadership, but don’t ever forget there’s a chain of command within any properly ordered leadership structure. It’s true that you’ve hired employees based on their knowledge, skills, talents, and experience in particular areas, but if you’re further up the chain of command then you’re at least partially responsible for their leadership successes and failures.
One of leadership’s chief responsibilities is to facilitate team success—to do everything possible to prepare for and foster success. This includes looking for weaknesses and inadequacies within your team, as well as helping team members recover from failure and learn from their mistakes. It’s a leader’s responsibility to fill in the gaps wherever team members might be lacking.
“But we don’t do on-the-job training,” you say. “We expect our new hires to know what they’re doing before coming on board.”
Preposterous. How can anyone, no matter how talented or experienced, know how to do everything the right way the moment they walk in the door? It takes the average employee several months at the least to get acclimated to an organization’s culture and processes. There’s no way they won’t make some missteps from the get-go, and possibly for months to come.
It’s their leader’s responsibility to teach and train them—to walk as an example in front of them until they get settled, and then continue to walk beside them as a teacher every day thereafter.
As a leader, you should be available at any given moment to help your team members solve problems. Give them permission to fail by showing them you’ve not only got their back and will support them, but more importantly by being there to help them get back on their feet when they do fall. When someone in your care fails, the very first question you should ask is not, “How did you let this happen?” but rather, “What could I have done as their leader to help prevent this failure?” and “How can I help them succeed in the future?”
This is taking ownership of your team, not as a dictator who punishes minions who make mistakes but rather as a shepherd who demonstrates care and concern for the team. A leader commiserates with team members over failures and cheers them on regardless of the circumstances. A leader understands team members will fail more than they succeed, and is there to help them learn and grow from those failures.
A leader who doesn’t want to take on the responsibility of teaching their people how to lead really doesn’t want to be a leader. What they want is to be a boss who sits in a corner office and dictates orders, metes out punishment, and collects a paycheck.
For more about learning how to be a great leader, I suggest you listen to the Chris LoCurto podcast regularly.
Fortunately, I’ve had better mentors and role models in the years since my school teaching days—particularly over the last 12 years or so. I’m still learning and growing as a leader, which I think is another hallmark of good leadership. I realize that I have great weaknesses, have learned how to identify those weaknesses, and strive to overcome them.
I’m reminded of a post I wrote a while back called Leaders Never Bully. There’s a great Jim Rohn quote I made into a graphic, so I thought I’d share it here again. It’s great reminder about the role and challenges of real leadership.