Leaders Show the Way

Gerwig 2015-07-06

Do you remember asking your mom how to spell a certain word so you wouldn’t have to look it up? Yes, I’m dating myself a bit. Today, kids just google the word or “right click” to look up the correct spelling (if it’s in a Word doc). But when I was growing up, kids, including myself, asked our parents. We asked because we couldn’t spell the word. How could we look it up if we couldn’t spell it? Of course, if you were “close” to spelling the word correctly, then after a couple tries in the dictionary, you could generally find the word and see how to correctly spell it. But from the vantage point of an 8-year old, there was an advantage in asking Mom. It was quicker. To this day, if I can’t spell a word and I’m around my Mom, I’ll ask her. She provides an answer faster than I can type it into my phone or tablet. And did I mention she’s a crossword puzzle whiz so her vocabulary and spelling are amazing.

The truth be told, as a kid, about half the time she gave me the correct spelling right away and the other half of the time she told me to look it up. She probably read my mood and determined which was the better option at the moment (a good demonstration of situational leadership). I remember getting frustrated with having to look up a word in the dictionary that I knew she knew how to spell. Why was I having to spend two minutes looking up a word she could correctly spell in 5 seconds?

You already know the answer. She was teaching me. She was coaching me. She was mentoring me. She was wanting me to become more self-sufficient. She wanted me to learn to spell. She wanted me to be able to use a dictionary. She knew she wouldn’t always be around to spell words for me. I needed to become more independent. I needed to learn on my own. And most importantly, I needed to “learn how to learn.”

Over the years, I partially learned my lesson. I learned how to use a dictionary. I learned how to spell more words. But I was still learning to learn.

Years later, I had this same lesson reinforced by an engineering director at Intel. I had a question about a particular piece of machinery used in the semiconductor fab at which we both worked. I knew this guy would know the answer (he was intelligent and experienced) so I went by his cubicle and asked him even though I knew he was one of the busiest leaders in the fab.

From his perspective, a young engineering manager two levels down came by and bothered him which a routine question. Of course I wasn’t thinking about it like that at the time. But I did know he had a reputation for developing others regardless of whether they reported to him or not, which was the case with me. And he was patient.

When I approached him with my question, he could have answered me, ignored me, or yelled at me. He did none of the above. He said, “Let’s go into the fab and take a look at the machine.” Even though I could have gone into the fab without him or asked someone else, he chose to invest in me. He didn’t give me the answer. He showed me how to look it up in the dictionary. After the fact, I was embarrassed by my actions and impressed with his. He taught me that leaders need to show the way. I was a high potential engineering manager, but still immature in many ways. He was patient. He chose to invest in me even though I wasn’t in his immediate organization. He spent time with me. Did I mention that it took about 20 minutes just to get “gowned up” (the process of correctly putting on the “bunny suit”) to go into the fab?

While in the fab, he showed me many others things I needed to know, but hadn’t asked. He introduced me to manufacturing technicians. He showed me how to pull critical data directly from the machine. He showed me how to teach others using questions. He showed me how to attack the process while engaging the people. He showed me the way. And it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. In turn, I’ve passed it on to others.

Leaders, true leaders, show the way. They build relationships. They make time for others. They mentor and coach. They invest in others. They use words but they also use actions. They speak AND do. They get out of their office/cubicle and get their hands dirty. The talk with people. They understand the importance of head and heart, tactics and strategy, people and process. Leaders show the way.

This week I spent a couple days in the Rockies with family. A young nephew of mine asked how to get the aspen grove from our cabin. For a split second, I almost gave him verbal instructions. Then I caught myself and said, “Let me show you the way.” I walked with him. It was an investment. It always is.

How about you? Have you been fortunate enough to have others invest in you and show you the way? Do you, in turn, do the same for others?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.

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