In my previous position, most days I worked remotely, but on the days when I went into the office, I always walked the exact same path to the bus. I’d be sure to head east on 43rd Street and walk on the south side of the street so that I passed by the Little Pie Company.
No matter the day, the season, or the weather, when I walked by the Little Pie Company, I took in a deep breath. New York City does not have many places where I actually enjoy putting my nostrils to full use, but in this particular spot, just outside this pie shop, I inhaled as long as I could. I eagerly invited in the most delicious aromas. Smells of freshly baked pies flooded my senses. Even though I never slowed my pace (I had a bus to catch after all), it was like passing through a heavenly pie cloud. As I continued my journey to Port Authority, the sweet smell of pies lingered.
Now, there are some other spots on different blocks in the city that I wouldn’t recommend breathing in deeply. Whether it’s the smell of trash or dog excrement or… well, let’s just say New York offers a long list of things that can smell bad… Not every place you pass by smells like a tasty pie shop. Sometimes the offensive odors stick with you long after you pass them as well.
Leadership is very much the same.
Good or bad, leadership lingers.
At this point in my career, it’s interesting to pause and listen to the voices of leadership that linger from my past. While a few hang on like a bad stench, most linger in a motivating, delicious-pie-smell way. Many of the leadership skills I effectively use today come from the experiences I had with leaders in my professional history. Here’s a taste of the lessons in leadership that linger with me.
1. Work/Life Balance.
In a conversation or during a meeting, the president of one organization frequently said, “I work to live; I don’t live to work.” Some might gasp at the statement, appalled that the president of the company conveyed an expectation other than “giving it your all.” But, that was the beauty of what he said. He anticipated you give 100% of yourself when you were at work, but he didn’t want you to be at work 100% of your time.
The words were not just lip service. He modeled effective work/life balance by leading strongly at the office and also proudly devoting substantial time to his family. This leader also didn’t expect his employees to live any differently. He knew certain times and projects called for extra hours, weekend time, and a few late evenings. However, he also knew the importance of self-care and enjoying this brief thing called “life” by spending time with those you love. He was fully aware that our leadership skills are diminished when we push ourselves to burnout.
2. Show Appreciation.
I recently went through a box of cards that I’ve received over the years. In my collection, I found at least three thank you notes from a person with whom I collaborated at a previous company. I never reported directly to her and was in a completely separate department, but she still took time to show her appreciation to me. She did so in a way that gets rarer by the day. She could have said it quickly in passing or shot off a grateful email; instead she hand wrote a note. It stood out, and the effort to actually write one emphasized the sincerity of the expression. Clearly, it meant a lot… after all, I’ve kept them for more than 8 years.
3. Listen & Understand.
Once in passing, I mentioned to a coworker that work circumstances were preventing me from accomplishing one small task I needed to do: buy a toaster. Two weeks later, a package arrived to my home; my coworker sent me a toaster. Another time, I said casually that I wish I had an electric wine opener. At the Christmas gift exchange, that’s exactly what I received from my supervisor.
Now, this lesson of lingering leadership is not to give presents (although that was nice); the lesson is to truly know those on your team. Ask about their family and friends by name. Know their hobbies and interests. Have an idea of what they find important outside of the office. Basically, understood who the person is. Steven Covey covered this in his foundational book on leadership skills, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. “Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood®” People operate best when they are seen and feel known.
4. Have Fun.
Some projects are overwhelming. Certain tasks consume us. For these times, laughter is not only helpful; it’s vital. During one past project, we had an outside contributor incensed that I had used a regular dash “-“ instead of an em dash “—.” With all the moving parts of the project, this seemed like a very small issue to really “go to the mattresses” for, but this person chose to fight this particular battle. Edits were made. Afterwards, to make sure that I always remember the proper use of an em dash, my supervisor made a coffee mug with the definition of an em dash on it. I use it to this day (the mug, not the em dash).
From that and from countless other lessons this leader taught me, you can’t choose every situation, but you can choose every response. Having fun is one of the leadership skills highly overlooked but vitally important. You can let something drag you down, or you can find the humor in it to make it lighter than air.
5. Be Kind.
I moved to New York City 4 years ago. In all honesty, I wanted to move here 24 years ago. A mixture of issues prevented me from making the move earlier. A phrase that echoes in my ear to this day is one often said by the leader from my first point. He also commonly said, “Wherever you are, you got there as fast as you could.” I learned not to come down hard on myself for being a late bloomer and for not being further along.
Timing is different for everyone. We can’t compare our individual progress to someone else’s. We all do the best we can with the knowledge we have in that exact moment. Hindsight is 20/20, so we can’t fault ourselves for what we know now that we didn’t know then. Like a butterfly breaking from its cocoon, sometimes we need the struggle to develop the strength. When you are able to realize this about yourself, you are able to better see and understand where the individuals you lead are in life.
Leadership Skills Come From Every Direction
One added bit to this… Many of the lessons of leadership that linger with me are not from my immediate supervisors to whom I reported but are ones from colleagues, professionals from different departments. They also come from those who reported directly to me. Additionally, valuable leadership lessons arrive in every type of work environment, even toxic ones. It is possible to lead from behind, the side, and from all directions and in every situation. If your mind, heart, and ego are open enough, you can learn and enhance your leadership style by having awareness of everyone who surrounds you.
It’s been some time since I’ve walked by the Little Pie Company, and I can still easily remember the amazing aromas. As I encounter others professionally, I aim to leave a lingering leadership lesson that, like the Little Pie Company, is pleasant, positive, and powerful.