The wrong way to lead

Posting about leadership on the same night as a vice presidential debate: sounds about right.

When it comes to leadership, I feel like I know more of what NOT to do than what to do. And I’ve learned plenty of what not to do from my own mistakes. I’m contributing once again to a leadership discussion here on the topic: “Whoops! How Have You Grown From Your Mistakes in Leadership?” (For other leadership posts, click here and here.)

Mistakes? We’ve all got ’em. And the sooner we learn from them the better leaders we become. Two related instances stood out in my mind when thinking about leadership mistakes. Both took place in my first “real” leadership position, as a resident assistant (R.A.) during my semester in England.

It was the perfect time for me to test my leadership wings. A friend who had been an R.A. the semester before encouraged me to do it and even prepped me a little for the interview. It meant having my own room (which was a plus because my roommate was a partier and I was not) and a little extra cash to spend on travels and such. It also had a degree of responsibility which was less than it would have been back on our home campus soil but I still took it seriously.

I got the job and went through a small amount of training about how best to handle rule infractions. One of the most important rules was: No smoking. We were living in a 19th century manor house. Smoking in the manor–not a good idea. The first time this rule was tested under my watch, I was hanging out with some friends in their room. We could smell smoke from the floor above us, a common occurrence for my friends. One of them pressured me to go up and confront the girl they knew would be smoking. I, on the other hand, was hoping someone else would handle the conflict. (How’s that for leadership?)

But I went. I knocked on the door. When I was told to come in, I found a girl smoking in her windowsill. I told her she couldn’t smoke. She said, “Why not? It’s my room.” I got upset. I think I raised my voice. She argued back and demanded to see her R.A. I found her R.A. and she handled the situation beautifully, just as we’d been trained to do.

Lesson learned: Training is important. And chances are if you’ve been trained to do something, there will come a day when you’ll have to use it. My mistake was forgetting my training. Instead, I felt pressured to take action and fix the problem and assert authority. I did it all wrong. Maybe if I’d paused and given myself time to think, I’d have remembered what we were taught to do.

The second instance had to do with a girl on my floor. She had a rough exterior (I’m not talking about her looks) and you could just tell she wasn’t going to take anything from anyone. One night her music was too loud and someone complained. So, I dragged myself to the end of the hall and around the corner and asked her to turn her music down. She complied and I went back to my room, which shared a wall with her room. Not long after I sat back down at my desk, I heard some loud thumps against the wall. I was so keyed up with adrenaline from having to confront her, even on a little issue, that I imagined she was harassing me for having scolded her. So, I wrote her up. Without going back to her and finding out what was going on.

When she received her punishment, she came right to my door and demanded an explanation. I told her what I’d heard and she denied it. I apologized, but it didn’t help. The next time I walked through her hallway on my night rounds and the music was too loud, her roommate gave her a look that said, “turn it down” and the girl loudly said, “I don’t care what she says.” I knew then that my authority, my leadership, was doomed. A few months later, when her boyfriend came to visit, let’s just say I took a mini-vacation from my room and didn’t write her up for the things I heard going on that night.

Lesson learned: Assumption really does make you look like an ass. And acting in revenge or out of your own insecurities only leads to more trouble. I’m still not a huge fan of conflict but I’ve learned that sometimes it’s necessary. And it can be healthy. And no one, I mean NO ONE, is going to respect your authority when you “pull rank.” (For more on this topic, click here.)

I’d love to tell you that since those days, my leadership has been perfect. It hasn’t. I still make mistakes. Sometimes they’re well-intentioned mistakes. I know they’re inevitable and I’ll learn from them, but making mistakes still hurts.

What about you? How have you learned from your mistakes in leadership? We’d love for you to join this discussion by commenting on this blog post or over at The Deeper Leader blog.

Stay tuned for more leadership topics!


One thought on “The wrong way to lead

  1. Uncomfortable! boy, you said it. I had some similar RA encounters actually…It’s hard to write up people who live nearby. I hated feeling like the police. I was a kid then, and being a mom has helped me a lot.

    I’m not sure the word “confront” is even helpful word for me… I’ve tried to think of a “needed interaction” as a dialogue or conversation. This helps me to not be as anxious, and consider that each of us may (possibly) not as opposed as it may first appear. a work in progress.

    cool contribution, Lisa

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