We are learning the character of the people we have chosen to follow. However, as we learn that character, we need to ask an important follow-up question: What does my choice of whom to follow say about me?
If you have worked longer than the cycle of three paychecks, you have probably already seen both good and bad bosses. And, the longer you work, the wider the range between good and bad grows, and the more varied are the stories that are told about those experiences. (In some cases, stories that come tumbling out only after the stack of shot glasses has grown higher than the bottles used to fill them.)
In one of my first jobs I worked at an amusement park where the boss didn't bother learning anyone's names; he just used nicknames. I was Hotrod. Trust me, it was delivered derisively. My next job, I worked at a movie theater where the boss was skimming from ticket sales. I'm guessing many of us found those first miniscule-wage jobs to be an instant immersion into the worst horrors the workplace can hold.
But my "real" work experiences came in my years with Farmers Insurance. And, early on, I was provided instruction on how others saw my choice of leaders as a reflection on the kind of person I was.
I had worked in accounting for six months when I applied for a job in internal audit. The accounting supervisor was a less than exemplary boss — not the worst, but definitely the talk of the building. In my interview with the audit manager, I vividly remember discussing that one reason for taking a new job was the negative perceptions the higher-ups would have of me in my current role working for Mr. Mediocre. Her reply was gold, and an indication that I would be working for a real leader. First, she said most people in our home office didn't even notice the supervisor. His manager was considered one of the top accounting managers in the organization and, if there was any reflection on me, then it would come from that manager. Second, she indicated that her reputation might not be any better than my current supervisor and working for her might not be a step forward. (She was wrong.)
I've talked at length in other places about the quality leaders I worked for and the lessons I learned from them, including that first internal audit manager and supervisor. Dig through the archives and you can find the stories. Suffice to say that all these people were more than good bosses; they were leaders who taught me about empowerment, emotional intelligence, and creativity. I've also told the stories of working for some of the worst leaders — micromanagers, incompetents, backboneless jellyfish. Again, I will not re-regale you with those stories.
But, from that first inkling from that first manager, I began to see how the leaders I followed altered the perceptions others had of me. When I worked for the good ones, a bit of the pixie dust was shaken my direction, allowing me to fly a little higher than should have been possible. But when I worked for the bad ones, I had to compensate for the collateral damage that would come raining down.
Working for good leaders is easy-peasy. Watch, follow, and learn. But working for bad leaders causes challenges that have few satisfactory solutions. When I worked for one of the worst managers ever (again, the archives are rife; look back and read all about it), I did not really have many choices. Others left the department, finding alternatives to the cesspool that was being created. But, for those of us who did not have that option, we had to balance getting the right work done and maintaining the department's reputation while separating ourselves from that leader without ever denigrating the person or the position.
Conversations at the time and afterward showed that, somehow, we pulled it off. Those we worked with understood our nigh-on untenable situation, recognizing the incompetence of the individual in charge while still respecting the department and the people.
However, in other times, I have seen what the reputation of the leader has done, and I have been forced to escape. I could not support what leadership was doing, and I could not accept what my acceptance of those inadequacies said about me.
Which leads to what may be the most important point.
MacArthur Grant recipient Octavia Butler wrote:
Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.
Who you follow will change people's perceptions of you. But who you follow will also change you. When we find good leaders to follow, we become better. But the more we acquiesce, the more we accept, the more we bend to the expectations of a poor leader, the more we become that person.
In all walks of life, even if we are leaders, we are still followers. And making the choice of who we follow will make or break us.