I was thinking back to my very first duty station in the Air Force and dredged up some old memories of my first operational supervisor. Unfortunately, the memories are not fond ones and never fail to raise my blood pressure at least a few points. To put it succinctly, the man was a real horse’s rear. In fact, if subsequent supervisors hadn’t been much better I probably would have exited the Air Force at the first opportunity. “People don’t leave jobs, they leave bad bosses” is true both in the military and civilian worlds. It’s shameful to recall, but I also remember a few times acting a little like that first boss later in my career when I had an opportunity to step into a leadership role myself. But isn’t that the way it is at most organizations? That first front-line supervisor can make a lasting impression on new folks and, in the absence of better role-models, perpetuate poor leadership.
When I ask the question, “Who is the most important leader in your organization?” during one of our leadership courses, I often hear “Our CEO” or some other high ranking leader. Although good leadership in those positions is important, it is equally, if not more, important to have good leaders at the lowest levels. Those front line leaders are typically responsible for getting the job done. They have the most effect on employee engagement and motivation. Whether they realize it or not, they also have the highest impact on the culture in their work area. Are they not the most important leaders for the people who work for them?
I recently had a student tell me that the most important thing he has learned about leadership is the importance of making a connection with his people. As he has started modeling that behavior the results he is getting from his team have dramatically improved. His folks really appreciate knowing that their leader cares about them as individuals; this in direct contrast to what they had previously been accustomed to elsewhere in the company.
Why do so many front-line supervisors have problems with leadership? Most are promoted based on their technical skills, but then aren’t given training specific to their new roles as leaders. In the absence of such training, most will wing it and emulate those leaders they’ve had in the past. Some will be lucky enough to pull it off. Quite a few will be less than successful. That’s bad for them, bad for their followers, and bad for the organization.
Make a difference. Encourage those aspiring to be leaders or those that are in lower-level leadership positions to seek out leadership training. No one should have to “wing it” when they get a chance at their first leadership opportunity. Coming into a new company should be an exciting time of learning and discovery, don’t ruin the experience by inflicting a bad boss on your new hires.