A Story About Authentic Leadership
A Story about Authentic Leadership: How I Learned the Hard Way
By Glenn Maul
Managing Partner, The Maul Group
Thanks for the overwhelming response to my last article. I was very much moved by some of the comments, and the people who wrote in about how our interactions over the years had helped them along their path. I also appreciated the individual who noted that the implications of authentic leadership transcend the workplace and apply to how you live your life. So, I feel blessed and lucky to be sitting here, building a Coaching business to help others, and writing about my passion to help and inspire others. Sincerely, thanks to everyone who read my article, commented, or checked “like”.
One of the consistent themes of the comments and calls I received was related to “tell me more about how to be an authentic leader”. I thought I would follow up that article by answering some of the questions it evoked in people.
One of the core characteristics of authentic leadership is the willingness to be vulnerable. It is allowing people to see inside of you, who you really are and to admit mistakes. It also implies “I don’t have all the answers and I am not going to pretend I do”. One of the best ways to do that is to tell stories. I worked with so many leaders over the years who kept it all inside; to tell a story about themselves made them uncomfortable when it would have endeared them in the eyes of many of their colleagues and direct reports.
To drive the point home, I thought I would take you back to some of the lessons learned along my career path and how I learned early on that competency is critical to leading people; but, without your heart really being in it, competence is simply not enough.
It was the early 1980’s…I was working for Reynolds Aluminum in a factory in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I was in a development role in Human Resources. I was doing a rotation in recruiting, compensation and benefits, training, workers compensation, employee relations and labor relations. The plant had 3,000 employees and 78 acres under roof. It also had 16 different unions representing various sectors of the employee base.
I was in my mid-20’s, married with 2 children, 1 and 4 years old, and my spouse was a full-time stay at home Mom. My boss came to me and told me that the economy was soft, business was down and we were going to have to lay off some of the HR staff, including me. So, here I am, 715 miles away from any family, about to lose our total income, scared to death. However, the boss said, the Operations team really likes the work you do and would like to offer you an open role as supervisor in the Maintenance area.
I had supervised people since I was 15 years old, had some background in maintenance/operations, but not much. But, given the alternative, I decided a role in Operations was just the ticket. The role was running a crew of up to 20 people on rotating shifts, all of whom were at least 20 years older than me, and members of various trade unions (Electricians, Pipefitters, Teamsters, Operating Engineers, Carpenters, etc). To say they were all a bit gruff would be a gross understatement. To say they were happy with their new 20 something boss would be a major stretch.
No one trained me, no one said here is what you do, I was just thrust in to figure it out. The “training” I did get consisted of “shadowing” a current supervisor for a week. The new boss said the crew knows what to do, just check in on them from time to time, fill out and sign off on the shift log.
Well, my first solo shift went about like you might have expected. I arrived at the Operations office for my area to find the entire crew sitting around looking expectantly at me. When I asked why were they not out and working, they said you didn’t arrange for the Electricians to do a “lock out, tag out” and they are the only ones who can do it according to the trades work rules. We cannot start until they do that.
I hurriedly made a call to the Electrician shop only to get no answer. So, I hopped on my supervisor tricycle (the plant was so big it was the only way to travel quickly) and ran to the Electrician shop only to find out they were having “break time” per contract and could not be disturbed. Then they had another call-in in front of mine and could be there in about an hour. So why, I am not sure, but I went back to my shop, got the crew and said let’s go to work.
I did the “lock out, tag out” myself, put the crew to work, and when the Electricians arrived 1.5 hours later, we were well under way. We had to pay the Electricians grievance process 2 hours pay (about $50) because I did the work, but 18 highly skilled people sitting for 1.5 hours would have cost the company $675. A good deal I figured. I got in a lot of hot water from my boss (a former Machinist), but I knew it was the right thing for the company.
At the end of the shift, two of the most respected members of the crew came to me and asked could they talk to me privately. I said of course. So, their first question was “why did you do what you did today?”. Without thinking, I said “because this crew comes first and it was the right thing to do”. They went on to tell me no one had ever done that before, I had gained a lot of respect with the crew, and many of the crew now considered me one of them.
I then had “the conversation” with them…this is the vulnerability moment you either seize or it is lost. Look guys, it has to be obvious to you I have little experience here and am flying by the seat of my pants because I have three people at home depending on me and I am not going to let them down. Can I ask for your help? I am willing to learn everything about what you do, ask a ton of questions, admit when I am wrong, and show you I truly care about each of you as individuals.
The crew and I became very close and those two gentlemen watched over me for the two years I spent in that and other operating roles. Almost 30 years later, I still remember their names…Square Horton and Chet Atkins (not the country musician). I learned to weld, I learned to make wing skins for Boeing 737 aircraft, I learned how to run heavy equipment, how to put on hip waders and work in lubricating oil 2 feet deep to make machine repairs, etc.
The moral of the story. The seeds of “Authenticity” grow from being vulnerable; this means sometimes admitting what others around you already know, i.e looking in the mirror. Great leaders know that strength comes from vulnerability and telling stories makes your vulnerability real and accessible to others.
As Ghandi said: be the change that you wish to see in the world.
At The Maul Group, partners and I understand the characteristics of authentic leadership and are willing to teach individuals or corporate teams how to access your authentic leadership ability. Please visit our website at www.themaulgroup.com, email us or give us a call.