Leadership Lessons Learned in the Trenches

In my consulting days, I used to manage teams of people who were contractors, assembled for specific projects, then released once the project was over. These talented people were “gig workers” before that was a thing.

The projects were often high intensity with very little cushion on the deadlines. As manager of these teams, I saw a lot of examples of hard work and true grit under pressure. The work required me to be a nimble manager with the ability to think on my feet.

The experiences in the field often served to remind me of business leadership principles I learned a long time ago, but have to revisit frequently if I choose to keep them fresh and effective.

Guiding Principles

Throughout my project assignments, my ‘master list’ of guiding principles was tested on several occasions. I wanted to share with you my thoughts and remind other leaders about the importance of staying centered on these valuable principles. Here they are.

If you claim to be a servant leader, have empathy and sympathy

On one assignment I ran into a team of folks who were new to me, but who had worked together for years before I arrived. They had just been informed that their workplace was undergoing a somewhat hostile takeover; hostile from the circumstances that caused the life-changing events.

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Former management had been caught doing very wrong things. My team was to serve as interim managers to ‘right the ship’ so to speak.

I needed the full cooperation and dedication from the staff left behind. I was immediately reminded of the need to empathize by placing myself mentally and emotionally in their shoes.

I needed to sympathize with the things I was hearing. The old phrase came to mind, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

Make the tough calls

I had to quickly start assessing the situation around me, digest facts and data, then make some quick decisions. I couldn’t wait on more data. That was not an option.

Knowing what I needed to know was important, but more critical was the willingness to take the intelligence/information I was being given and then make a decision.

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Difficult people need to be corralled and managed

The impact of a ‘difficult’ personality in the workplace can have tremendous ripple effects.

On this project, the client stationed a senior manager with whom I was tasked to work. He proved to be a very difficult personality.

Fortunately, I was able to get a read on him early on in the project, identify the issues, and make plans for managing across the work team to minimize the influence of the more negative things that he occasionally dumped.

On one particularly challenging day, this individual had spewed a lot of venom across the office; foul language, abusive comments. When he went home, I gathered my troops for a sit-down meeting. I told them simply that “I, as their team leader, wanted to apologize to them on his behalf. The things said and done that day were not appropriate among professionals. I told them I hoped they could see that for what it was and not be deterred in their dedication to the mission by having endured this day.”

Rely on your team

Make team projects a true team event by admitting your own shortcomings and use the skills and abilities the team can bring. Do not ever act so big and proud that you have to know it all. People don’t like ‘that guy’.

Accountable

Inspire people by identifying their strong suits early, and then create applicable opportunities where the use of those individual skills can shine.

Also, share among the team who is doing what and how important the outcome can be. Spread the wealth evenly. Consider this as “know your people”. People respond very well when they know their self-worth is being used appropriately for key contributions to the effort.

Have a little fun

Every day does not have to be all starched and polished. Let your own hair down a little and find opportunities for a little innocent fun. Let the people’s personalities shine too.

By creating an environment for a little friendly banter among the crew, you can keep spirits light and fresh. But watch out for off color jokes and comments or anything that starts to sound cutting or personal. Keep it light. Help make people want to come back to work.

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Maintain your own personal integrity

There are many ways to do this, but chief among them is making and keeping promises. Communicating clearly, openly, and fairly whenever possible.

Of course managers sometimes have to hold things close to the vest. But as soon as you can share with your team, do so.

CONCLUSION

Leaders must be clear on a set of guiding principles that fit their style and belief system. I hope my list helps you. Please comment below on these topics and share others you have used.