When you want to know how your leadership is working–ask. Years ago, I learned this lesson when I received some unsolicited advice that challenged my professionalism, served as a wakeup call, and changed the arc of my career. The counsel came from a subordinate as I was leaving an important leadership position but it would have come earlier if I had only asked.
I was very interested in my performance and development as a leader and often sought my boss’s input. I led an outstanding organization and he consistently praised our performance and my leadership. My formal evaluations were all exceptional but the counsel of a subordinate was more accurate, less kind and exactly what I needed to hear. My leadership shortcomings never surfaced with my boss because our organization was good enough to overcome them but they were obvious to those who worked for me.
That experience taught me a valuable lesson that improved my leadership performance—if you want to know what kind of leader you are, ask a subordinate. From childhood we are taught to pay attention to our leaders—parents, teachers, clergy, coaches, etc. We grow up, looking up; by habit we are sensitive to the words and deeds of those above us. So, our subordinates watch us while we watch our boss and so on.
Most subordinates know more about our leadership style, abilities, and performance than our boss knows. To our boss, by relationship we are a follower. On the other hand, our subordinates know us as leaders. As a consequence, we’d be wise to remember who has the best perspective of our leadership when seeking counsel. As I look back, I learned a great deal from the example of my bosses but learned more from the counsel of my subordinates.
Clearly, not everyone will give you unvarnished input but if you ask the right questions in the right way and listen to a variety of voices, you’ll get good, honest counsel. So what’s keeping you from having a discussion with a subordinate that starts with, “How am I doing as a leader?”
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