Learning Leadership through Real Life Stories

Provost Blog


Learning Leadership through Real Life Stories

June 5, 2012

We can attend workshops on leadership, we can read current books on leadership, or we can even get degrees in leadership; but the best way to learn leadership is by observing leaders in everyday life.

I will share five principles of leadership I have learned through personal experiences with other leaders during my career. I will share stories of leaders and will describe them with a first name only and then describe the principle I learned.

  1. Be a caring leader.
    Debbie was the Director of Admissions at a university in the Midwest. Debbie was very personable and had been with the university for fifteen years. Her family and grandchildren were a big part of her life. I met Debbie when I was interviewing for a Vice President position; and learned she would be reporting to me if I was offered the position. During my two day interview bonanza with administrators, faculty and staff, I still remember one question Debbie asked me. She asked, "Are you willing to be a leader who cares about people and their personal lives, beyond the work day?" I will never forget that question. As a result, I frequently return to the memory of that question and realize people are much more than we see between 8 and 5 each day. They have cares and burdens that go beyond their responsibilities at work. Therefore, as leaders, we need to go out of our way to find out how employees are doing and let them know we care. I will always remember what Debbie was really asking: will I be a caring leader?
  2. Respect your boss.
    Hank…I can still remember the night Hank called me at home, angry over a newspaper advertisement I had placed in the local paper to market our college. He was the regional vice president for our community college campus. I took the call and quickly realized he was extremely agitated; and he began to verbally assault me in ways I wasn't expecting. It was obvious he had been drinking. After his call, I was still reeling and in shock. I had a choice to make. I could act like it never happened, I could express my dissatisfaction the next day, or I could determine to forgive him and show him respect and double up my efforts to make him successful. I chose the positive route and went out of my way to be kind and to help make him successful. After he had apologized several times the next day, we went on to build a mutually supportive relationship. When I left this position, Hank threw a big banquet to honor my work. The principle I learned was to respect my boss, no matter how he or she behaved. I determined it was my duty and responsibility to respect my boss.
  3. Be a good listener.
    Joe was the president of a large, private university with over 16,000 students. As vice president, I met with Joe on a weekly basis. Joe was kind, caring, and interested in my on-going development as a leader. He was a strong and decisive leader with a very calming style. He was very careful to listen to all of my ideas and updates. Through his example, I learned the importance of listening first, then speaking. Joe encouraged young leaders while in meetings to spend more time listening and to spend less time talking. I learned that good leaders are good listeners.
  4. Be a confident leader.
    Shorty was my little league baseball coach. I remember him as kind and considerate, a good coach and a family man. I'll never forget the evening he called me at home and asked me if I would be his shortstop for the coming season. He said each coach could pick one player and the remainder of each team's roster would be filled through a draft. As you can imagine, this was quite a surprise and was a real boost to my confidence level. As a ten year old, I was lacking confidence. Knowing that my coach wanted me as his shortstop did more for me than he'll ever know. The principle Shorty gave me was confidence and I have learned over and over again throughout my career that people desire confident leaders.
  5. Be an inspirational leader.
    This story is about my son, Jonathan. It was our ritual to warm up in the front yard before each little league baseball game. We had just finished batting practice and fielding grounders when I unexpectedly blurted out, "If you hit a homerun tonight, I'll get you that Louisville Slugger bat you've always wanted."

    Well, I didn't think any more about it. My wife and I went to the game and sat in the stands and watched as Jonathan came up to bat. He hit a line drive past the center fielder. Jonathan turned first, then rounded second and headed for third. The third base coach held up his arms high over his head to motion "stop" at third, but Jonathan turned third and sped for home. The centerfielder threw to the cutoff man and he threw to the catcher just as Jonathan slid into the plate. The umpire yelled "safe" and we cheered.

    After the game, I ran up to Jonathan and blurted out "Why did you keep going when the coach motioned for you to stop?" And, he said "Simple dad, I wanted the bat."

    I learned, accidentally, the power of words to motivate. Words given at the right time can inspire people to reach new heights.

Five Principles I've learned.

  • Be a caring leader.
  • Respect your boss.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Be a confident leader.
  • Be an inspirational leader.

We learn leadership through observing leaders in real life. I have appreciated those leaders who have invested in me and have taken the time to share "nuggets" of wisdom. I have truly benefitted from the experiences of other leaders I have worked with throughout my career. I do believe we learn best through observation and practice. The principles listed above are a testament to the good work of others who taught me so much about what it means to be a good leader.