The best advice a boss ever gave me

June 17, 2019 on 4:01 pm by Michael Grey | In Random Thoughts | No Comments

If the word leadership could be instantly removed from the English language the internet would have almost 4 billion fewer traces of Linkedin’s favourite noun. Four. Billion. People love “leadership”. We may not always be especially charmed by local political leaders but for leadership as a notion, an idea – there’s a lot of love.

Maybe love’s not the right word. Forget water in plastic bottles and granite countertops: people need leadership. While love is a firm part of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, leadership is implied. Elements of Maslow’s theory require leadership. To feel secure, socially accepted and hold a sense of belonging all stand as examples of needs that would be difficult to realize without some degree of social organization. And in the act of organizing leadership is a necessity. It’s this essential need for leadership that made me realize why the internet is jammed to the servers with all things leaderly.

Never mind the Oxford Dictionary’s elegant definition, “the action of leading a group of people or an organization”, it seems everyone has their own interpretation of leadership. You’ll know that the L word is an internet meme magnet. To employees with the boss keen on bed checks at 4:55 pm on the Friday of a long weekend, “leadership is about trust in people”. For those burdened with a bad boss – meaning “bad” in the old school way – a bias might lean to something like, “a leader doesn’t put people down, he lifts them up” or “be the kind of leader that you would follow”. As says the comedian who scores with a one-liner, I got a million of ‘em.

I’ve been lucky in my career to have had good managers. Some have been outstanding leaders, too. One in the latter category gave me a little advice about mid-way in my time at a Canadian bank. On this day I’d been feeling a little put upon. As can be the way, plans were hobbled by push-back and opting-out (every change manager’s dream team). My boss wasn’t the kind of guy who would revel in dispensing coaching and counsel at every turn. His feedback was always measured, his style laid back.

And so, to my “best advice”. My own little internet meme: “Mike, you have to stand back and pick your battles”. I can sense your disappointment. “Pick your battles, really, that’s it?”. To pick your battles, admittedly, is one of our most common leadership aphorisms. Choose wisely and don’t squander your energy engaged in needless adversarial exchanges, er, battles. Still, on this day it resonated.

At its core I see the careful “choosing of battles” not as a way to pick only winnable challenges. The leadership imbued in the phrase “pick your battles” is the pause, the reflection, the considered assessment and the objective view of an entire perspective. It’s not about picking the right fight – or any fight, for that matter.

It’s about doing it differently where it makes sense. And – meme alert – leadership – in part, at least – is having the ability to deliberate and zero in on those things that truly deserve energy and attention. As for battles, they rarely fall under that category.

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