I’m a rule breaker. Well, maybe more of a bender. I believe in spirit and intent, as sometimes rules take time to catch up with reality.
Going into this past weekend, I was really looking forward to Captain America: Civil War. I’ve long said I am Iron Man, and identify with Tony Stark as someone who has had to figure out how to lead without the suit. However, when it comes to Team Iron Man or Team Cap, I’ve been Team Cap all the way.
While I say I’m a rule bender (Tony frequently bends, shapes or ignores rules as he sees fit), I have a firm grasp of what I see as right and wrong. I understand the rules – all the nuances of the rules – to make sure I don’t put a toe past them.
If Tony and Cap are each on one side, then I know Cap is going to be squarely on the side of right. That’s just what he does. In effect, he’s the balance Tony needs.
At least that was my position going into the weekend. The reality, as expected, is murkier than a strict definition of right and wrong.
If you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to stop here. Spoilers ahead.
Getting Started in Leadership
Our earliest leadership opportunities are often found by accident.
We start by filling a gap. When those around us are not sure what to do, we step in and help figure it out. We begin leading long before we ever have a title that says we should be.
If we continue filling those needs, eventually we may find ourselves responsible for others. Filling bigger and bigger gaps. Serving more and more people. People who look to us for their guidance and direction.
Coming to leadership by accident, we may not even realize what has happened. Until we look around and see that we have followers. Ones that stick with us as our careers shift and grow.
The Leadership “It” Factor
So what makes the difference between those that lead and those who are led? What is that “it” factor that makes us so willing to follow certain individuals?
As leaders, we each have our own approach to leadership. An approach developed through experience, as well as a little blood, sweat and maybe a tear or two.
While we each bring our own stamp to how we lead, there are common attributes to most successful leaders:
Vulnerability (be human)
Integrity (be honest)
Transparency (show your work)
Accountability (own your outcomes)
Empowerment (grow others)
The acronym is VITAE.
Flak jackets are designed to protect the body from harm, such as from projectiles or shrapnel. They are meant to reduce vulnerability.
Working for the Marine Corps, the term “flak jacket” represented a form of protection when under fire. Often, my Marine peers would joke about needing their flak jacket in certain situations, because (verbal) fire was being directed their way.
As a civilian, flak jackets were not standard issue. I had no physical threats nearby, so a literal flak jacket was unnecessary. However, the environment was such that a mental flak jacket was critical to my success.
Realizing the power of the personal
Fast forward many years to the leader that finally figured out my flak jacket was preventing my teams from getting to know me. From seeing me as human.
A mentor of mine put it best. No matter how put together any of us may seem, we are one loose thread away from unravelling.
So why hide it?
A five year old girl sits in a rocking chair, looking at her mother through her tears.
“You said you’d never lie to me.”
Of course not, reassures the mother, unsure what is the matter.
“Is Santa real?”
The mother, unprepared for this question so early, hesitates.
The little girl demands the truth through her sobs. Until the mother sadly and silently shakes her head.
“The Easter bunny? The tooth fairy?”
Christmas at age four, with my new Holly Hobbie doll.
Again and again, the mother shakes her head, the last of her daughter’s belief in magic fading away. The magic may have ended, but she had reinforced her belief in integrity. Something that would hold her much longer than a belief in Santa Claus ever could.
Yes, I am that little girl. The one who challenged older kids that Santa must be real, because my parents wouldn’t lie to me. The one that demanded the truth, because knowing I could believe in them was more important than my need to believe in magic.
As leaders, our teams have to trust that we operate with integrity. Without it, our leadership is as real as Santa Claus.
Have you ever heard “because I said so?” I remember telling myself, “when I become a parent, I will never use those words.”
There’s a reason why always and never should not be used lightly.
The challenge with very young children is, it takes a while to develop the ability to reason. So, like the parent I aspired to be, I took the time to explain why. Maybe explain again. And again.
Eventually, one day, I lost my patience with “why”. There was an important lesson happening – like running with scissors – and the very reasonable explanations were not getting through. I finally ended the discussion with “because I said so.”
Now we’re to age seven, and our son’s cognitive ability has developed to the point where he has his own good reasons why he does and does not want to do something. I’m just waiting for the day that I hear from him “because I said so.”