The key ingredients of being a leader and building a culture

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Recently, I had attended a very short but insightful leadership course. The most memorable moment for me is how the teacher built a culture by practicing and setting an example as a mentor on the very first day of the class. He leveraged on “teachable moments” like setting expectations before class to share his values and guiding principles for class interactions. This allows us to experience how a culture was built right from the start. Most of my classmates know what to expect from the course. They understand the importance of attitudes, values and guiding principles that the class embraces. We can see people volunteering, sharing their ideas, and being vulnerable with their experiences. The interactions were extremely positive and conducive for classes. You can tell because I actually look forward to attending the classes after the first session (while I was juggling with a day job and covering 80% duties for a vacant position).

The teacher had set some expectations for us before going into the curriculum. The very first expectation is “professionalism”. Being professional helps build trust among the teacher and students, among students and teacher and among students themselves. We are all responsible for our learning and shouldn’t be needing someone to nag on us to be on time, to submit our assignment, and/or to catch up if we missed our lessons. As teacher, professionalism is extremely important because they are our role-model in all situations. They are bringing up our next generation. Being professional will help build trust as time pass. Students and parents know that they would be able to rely on you and depend on you when they need help.

What does leadership mean to me before attending this course?

Leadership was the ability to lead and delegate tasks to others. Some leaders are visionary and charismatic. Others could be supportive. The ones that I dread working with are probably autocratic, laissez-faire, and those who just lead without knowledge and/or experience.

My thinking about leadership was bounded by the types of leaders that I have met and experienced working with. I have never thought deeply about what leadership could mean. I never considered myself a leader because I don’t want to be “that person” who delegates work to others and be stuck in the political arguments that were common among management and leadership. The arguments could range very trivial issues to complex ones that no one was willing to take on (often being delegated downwards).

What has changed after attending the course?

At the very start of the course, the teacher stressed that “leadership is about serving and giving with respect”. The attitude of the leader is important. A teacher is the leader of the class. I quote: “In the hands of the leader is the power to build or destroy a staff.” Similarly, “In the hands of the staff is the power to build and destroy a leader.” All of us are humans. We should be treating each other with dignity and respect.

A basic social safety net is important when building the trust between the leader and staff. We need to be able to understand the importance of confidentiality. We shouldn’t be sharing what we are not in position to share. Say a staff had shared his/her personal experience with you. Without consent, you shouldn’t be spreading rumors and gossips to others (often the content would be tainted with your opinions). It is crucial of all of us to accept one another. Each of us comes from different background, family, culture, race, and religion. Naturally, we faced different realities and experiences. All these realities and experiences that we faced are valid. We shouldn’t be aiming to tear down others’ experience nor undermine them. Accepting that these experiences are the realities that they faced and offering ways that we can walk forward together is always a better way of leading the team.

In theory, it makes sense. In practice, it is difficult to work it out. Sometimes you may have offended someone unintentionally by using words or expressions that may be biased or undermined one’s religion, race, experiences, culture and more. Other times, you may lost yourself for a moment due to the emotions that you are feeling inside. It is hard to be a good leader. It is hard to constantly serve and bring value to others. But as hard as it may be, it is not impossible. What we can do is to learn, and keep learning (i.e., sharpening your saw) until we see improvement. Slowly, but surely, we can move forward together.

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