How a Follower Made Me a Leader

Being a boss does not make one a leader, at least in the sense of an open-door leader. When it comes to creating opportunities for personal transformation, the term “leader” has less to do with hierarchy and more to do with the influence you bring to bear on people and situations. With a little courage, anyone at any level can be a leader. In the preface I mentioned that my journey toward becoming a leadership-development practitioner began when a courageous employee told me what a lousy leader I was. He told me this after I had pushed him to the point that he was ready to quit.

At the time I was the show director of an aquatic stage and stunt show put on by the U.S. High Diving Team. The employee and I were also high divers in the show. Each day we would climb a 100-foot-high dive ladder and hurl ourselves toward the pool below, rushing down at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour into a pool that was 10 feet deep. In addition to performing our death-defying dives,
often before crowds of 2,000 people, we also performed Olympic-style dives, a comedy routine, and dangerous double-dive stunts. I'm not being overly dramatic when I tell you that we could have easily been killed on the job.

One day, after what I considered a subpar performance, I ripped into the team like General Patton. I told them that only chumps could put on a show like that. I told them that if they couldn't get with the program, I'd ditch them for divers who could. I told them that they made me ashamed to be their boss. Then I told them to get out of my face because looking at them disgusted me.

After my little tirade, one of the divers stayed behind. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Listen, Treasurer, who do you think you are? Where do you get off talking to us like that? Do you think that by berating us and making us feel small you will earn our respect? All you do is harp on everyone's mistakes. What's your goal, dude, to make us afraid of you? At what cost? People hate working for you. If you talk to us like that again, I'll walk. I respect myself too much to let you treat me that badly.”

The truth only hurts if it should. Hearing the employee's words was painful, because deep down I knew that he was right. I wasn't being a leader; I was being a jerk. The truth was that I had no confidence as a leader at all. I had no idea how to lead, so I adopted the style of my previous boss, and the boss before that. I took up the most heavy-handed aspects of leaders that I had experienced going all the way
back to my first leader role model: my father. I was basically channeling my dad, or at least my dad when he was angry. I had no idea who I was, authentically, as a leader. My employee's words confronted me with that reality. But it was exactly what I needed to prompt me to take an interest in the concept of leadership.

Very few people have the courage to give their boss upward feedback. Respecting authority is one of our earliest lessons. So, when faced with an abhorrent boss, most people bite their tongue, which only further enables the abhorrent behavior. In this case, however, the employee had reached his tipping point. The risk of telling me the hard truth on the ever-so-slim chance that I might actually change was less dangerous than letting me stay a worldclass jackass. His courage in giving me the raw feedback that I needed to hear (but cringed at hearing) helped trigger a personal transformation.

I began to reflect on the leader I had been versus the one I wanted to be. I started reading books on leadership and team building and, as a result, saw my team's performance improve. I came across the term “organization development” and decided to pursue a graduate degree in that subject. I wrote my thesis on leadership, which gave me my first taste of writing a book-sized manuscript. I can draw a very straight line from the uncomfortable but courageous feedback that diver gave me years ago to the book that you're reading at this moment. In a very direct way, his feedback resulted in the life I live today as a leadership writer,
speaker, and consultant. Without his courage, there's a very good chance that I would have gone on to other leadership roles in other organizations, doing a lot of damage to a lot of people in the process. That feedback became my opportunity to change for the better. Even though I was his boss, he served as my open-door leader, because his raw feedback instigated my personal transformation.

Open-Door Leaders Move Us Toward Our Better Selves

Socrates advised us to “know thyself.” It is, of course, very good advice, because it is hard to change yourself if you have no idea who you really are. But knowing yourself and transforming yourself based solely on introspection is next to impossible. Open-door leaders serve us best when they help us see ourselves in a different way. By being a good role model, opening the doors to allow us to experience transformation, holding us accountable to our own potential, and giving us direct and diplomatic feedback, opendoor leaders help us transform from the person we are to the person we're capable of becoming.

Open-Door Actions and Reflections

1. Identify at least one leader who helped bring about a personal shift for you.

• What was the shift?
Why did you need it?

• What did the leader do to help bring it about?

2. List the names of a few people who might consider you an open-door leader.

• What shifts would they say you helped bring about for them?

3. Think back to a time in your career when someone gave you tough feedback.

• What did they say to you?

• How did you react?

• In what ways did this feedback impact you?

4. Identify one person who needs some feedback that you've been avoiding giving.

• Why are you avoiding it?

• What shift might your feedback help that person make?

• How could you deliver the feedback in a way that preserves the dignity of the person, yet still gets the point across?

How could you be a “velvet hammer”?

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