One of biggest challenges when writing a blog about leadership is that it’s very easy to get laser focused on all the bad. Which, to be sure, there is plenty of. Yet if we always focus on what’s wrong, then it can start to feel insurmountable to actually change it. If everything is broken, then how can it ever be fixed?
It can be hard to see sometimes, but there is a great deal worth appreciating and encouraging. There are some amazing assets to the workplace, that hold the line against chaos, advocate for a better environment, and create change in a myriad of ways every day.
I’m talking, of course, about people.
Last time I talked about the bad leaders. But today isn’t about them. Today is about the good ones. Let’s talk about how good leaders make a difference.
I know I’m a broken record with this point, but I’m a huge believer that good leaders can be found at every level of an organization. No matter the level of formal authority, there are always those who make a difference, help people, support important change, and leave a lasting mark.
This list is not about positional power, but acts of true leadership.
It’s too easy and too common to focus on our flaws, but I hope everyone reading takes a moment to acknowledge that you have definitely done all the things on this list. Some of them you do every day. There has been someone struggling who gained hope through your words. There has been someone who was overlooked that you helped feel seen. There’s someone who thinks about you, and the impact you have had on their lives, more often than you can ever know.
This is not just about the good leaders out there, but also the good leaders right here. I hope you own it.
Item 1: Listening.
When it comes to skills that people take for granted, listening is at the top of the list. There are a lot of lovely people out there who I only see occasionally, because I will spend the entire time listening to every little thought they have. They may be charismatic or humorous, but small doses are best.
Then there are those who listen only until they can interject with their own story, or opinion, or advice. For example, the manager who “empathized” with hearing about my chronic migraines by telling me about the time he had to go to the hospital for a completely unrelated medical issue. They can appear to be listeners, but it’s not a true give and take.
True listening, with empathy and compassion, withholding judgement, and not jumping straight to advice, is difficult. Some of us come by it naturally, and some of us need to work on it, same as any other skill.
That’s why it’s so valuable when you find someone who does listen. I’ve had co-workers pull me out of the office for a walk around the block or to grab a coffee because they could tell I was upset, and wanted to give me space to share. I’ve had managers take me out to lunch so I could talk freely about my feelings in a neutral environment. But even the small moments, a five minute chat to vent a frustration or run through an idea, make a huge difference.
I’ve always hated crying at work (a feeling that is common for working women who are often criticized for having emotions), but I remember the first time it happened. I was being treated very passively aggressively by the woman I was supposed to assist in the office and it was starting to take a toll. I went to our mutual manager to talk about what was happening. I think what felt truly remarkable in the moment was that she immediately believed me and cared deeply about my experience. Passive aggressiveness is something that is so easy to gaslight, and a lot of people would have dismissed my concerns as “being too sensitive”. When it came to action, the wheels of bureaucracy turned extremely slowly, but just knowing I had my manager’s support made a huge difference.
The truth is, when you have people in your life who authentically listen, you feel validated and seen. You feel less alone, even when some new sort of bureaucratic insanity makes you question your judgement. The ship may be taking on water, but you’ve got someone in your corner to help you bail.
Item 2: Providing a feeling of safety for people.
On my last day facilitating a particular leadership program, one of the students came up to talk to me at the end of class. He told me that on the very first day, we had been doing a small group activity, where I was facilitating his group. He was trying to make a point about something, but it didn’t come out the way he meant, and a couple of others in the group had pushed back. He told me how at that point, I spoke up, clarified his meaning, and smoothed over the conversation. He said he had been really nervous about class up to that point, but that made him feel like our program was going to be a safe place.
The funny thing is, I have zero memory of this experience. It’s a pretty normal part of facilitation. But I was so touched that this student not only remembered it, but that he talked about feeling a sense of safety.
It made me realize how often others have done the same for me. It’s easy to remember the unsafe experiences, the managers who have clear biases, the meetings where you are ignored or dismissed, the conversations where you are marginalized.
But the truth is, I developed from someone terrified of speaking out in class as a child to someone facilitating classrooms. That was only ever possible because of the people who made me feel safe as I developed my career. Safe to make mistakes, safe to laugh at myself, safe to try over again and do things a little bit differently.
Safety is incredibly important, especially for those who are part of any marginalized community. Even in the most well-intentioned workplaces, unconscious biases can lead to men speaking over women, or white workers dismissing the concerns of workers of color. Good leaders help everyone feel like they have a voice.
Interestingly, as I was working on this post, a former co-worker posted this article on cultivating a sense of belonging in the workplace. What I think the piece really nails is how many organizations want to look at diversity in terms of metrics. They think that if you have x number of a particular kind of employee, then hey, problem solved! Yet this honestly means very little, especially in cultures that have been entrenched in biased behavior for decades. What truly matters is if all people, of all backgrounds, feel like they have a voice.
Item 3: Being optimistic yet transparent
I have to be honest, I am very skeptical when it comes to the use of positive language. This is not about attitude or perspective, but about how some people use positivity as a cudgel. I used to have a friend who would chastise me if I ever dared to voice a worry out loud. “Don’t put it out there!”, she would scold. It was extremely frustrating, because she was essentially telling me that if my worry came true, it was my fault for speaking about it.
It’s very similar to the kind of language you see represented so much in Multi-Level Marketing scams, where people are told that their lack of success has nothing to do with being caught up in a pyramid scheme, but is entirely their fault for not being positive enough or working hard enough.
And this kind of language has sadly infiltrated a great number of workplaces. The idea that “we’re all a family” so it’s ok for you to be asked to do unpaid overtime. The concept that you shouldn’t complain, because other people have it so much worse. That you should be grateful for having a job at all. Even the rampant escalation of buzzwords, where your valid concerns are met with a “Oh, we plan to maximize our motivation metric with an optimization of emotional validity and economic incentivization”, which let’s face it, is a management trick to essentially say “eff you, dude, we’re not doing a dang thing to help you.”.
Which is why I really value leaders who are both optimistic and transparent. I think the combination is incredibly important.
Real optimism is not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, or throwing out positive language to avoid actual accountability. Actual optimism is saying that I see the best in you and what you are capable of, and I think we can work together to overcome this next obstacle. We don’t pretend the obstacle is not there, or that there won’t be unpredictable challenges coming our way. That’s where the transparency comes in. But we know that together we can do our best, and our best makes a difference.
I often think of the manager who recruited me into the training unit in the first place. I met her when I interviewed for a position, and didn’t get it. Yet she called me afterwards, and asked if I would like feedback. We talked for a long time, and she had extremely helpful suggestions for getting additional experience. She didn’t sugarcoat anything, but was also able to tell me about all the strengths she saw in me, and why she thought there was value in helping me get closer to the qualifications she was looking for. Then later on, when she needed to fill a new position, she called me.
She was always encouraging, always interested in my development and success. She had also worked for the agency for forty years, and knew exactly what challenges were likely to arise in every new situation. She never pretended that the agency was some shiny happy place where we could hold hands and sing like happy little elves if we just had the right attitude. But she always let us know that she had faith in us. That’s the source of real positivity.
Item 4: Never giving up.
When I think of the amazing leaders who have influenced me, I think of how they listened, encouraged me, made me feel safe. But above all else, what stands out most clearly for me is the tenacity with which they keep fighting the good fight.
Now, let’s be clear. I know I’m biased as someone who has quit a job, but I don’t believe that quitting equals giving up. I will never regret prioritizing my mental health, and having left an unhealthy workplace has encouraged me to advocate for others who are dealing with the same thing.
So I don’t want anyone who has left a bad situation to ever feel guilty for that. In fact, protecting ourselves ensures that we have the energy and mental fortitude to keep doing what needs to be done.
When I talk of never giving up, I’m talking about the big picture. About the things that mean more than any one job or office. I’m talking about trying to make the world better, bit by tiny bit.
Often, when I want to be inspired by leadership, I look at some of the young people who are fighting for stronger environmental policy or better gun control. These are literal children, still in school, and yet they show more meaningful leadership than our actual government. They get called names, accused of being plants, and are bullied by people twice or three times their age, and yet they maintain such steady, consistent, thoughtful dedication to doing what is right.
Having leaders who will step up, speak truth to power, advocate for everyone, and refuse to engage in toxic conduct can make a world of difference. Often these people are not the ultimate authority. Often they are holding the line against those who failed upwards, who promote their own self-satisfaction against their employees’ well-being. But their influence is immeasurable.
I’ve been so fortunate to have many amazing mentors in the workplace, all at very different levels of power. These are people who have definitely been hurt by the system, and yet they maintain the integrity and moral fortitude to keep advocating for change. They don’t just want to make things better for themselves, but for everyone. They may get knocked down, but they never get knocked out.
In many ways, writing about the positive is harder than writing about the negative. But when I think about what keeps me going, it’s the examples of leadership that inspired this post.
To play my geek card, and quote Doctor Who, “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.”
Thanks to everyone who’s added to my list of good things.