Heroes and Villains

Via brad@pathfive.ca

Do you remember those diecast construction toys Tonka used to make? That was back in the 80’s when toys weren’t made of cheap plastic -- when quality was a major differentiator to consumers. My parents bought a collection of them and I played endlessly in our backyard sandbox with them. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up and so having that collection was special.

Mom (everyone called her that) was a homemaker and looked after lots of neighbourhood kids. One day a new boy named Danny came over. Of course I was out back building a sand empire with my Tonka’s. We uttered ‘hi’ and then went about playing fairly independently. I had my back to Danny but heard him leaving the sandbox so I turned around. He held my favourite Tonka toy, the Excavator, high above his head.

If diecast metal has an enemy, it’s a slab of impenetrable concrete. In one swift motion he brought the toy to utter destruction by smashing it into the ground. I cried.

Why would any unprovoked person perform such senseless tyranny? Reflecting as an adult it’s easier to understand. Danny was a bully. His destructive attitude towards others, particularly those younger than him, became well defined in future years. In that tragic Tonka-toy moment my anguish somehow filled a broken emotional need. Fortunately, that was the only time he was invited to our house. Good thing people grow out of that as adults. Or, do they...?

I once worked for a fellow who tossed a chair at an employee in anger. Perhaps more impressive, he could consistently complete sentences using more profanity than English. In recent years a teacher divulged that their district was attempting to transfer them to a rural school on the outer extremity of their boundary in an attempt to “entice” early retirement -- either that or suffer through long daily commutes. In another conversation I learned about a principal changing subjects on a teacher every year in an attempt to get them to resign -- this action results in sizeable additional preparation work for a teacher. None of this should be surprising -- we see the same thing in political parties when representatives don’t align. We see it in corporate management.

It doesn’t seem like the Danny’s in the world grow out of this abhorrent behaviour. And as adults they realize fear, intimidation and anguish can be powerful and easily applied “motivators” to get people to do what they want -- whether it’s conforming, taking on extra work, keeping quiet or resigning.

How are these people able to climb into positions of authority? Nobody has access to an “Uninspiring Jack-ass Detector” so it’s safe to assume these people are eloquent and well thought out when interviewed (I never said they were dumb).

Let’s call these people villains.

In the last 10 years I’ve had exposure to hundreds of principals and thousands of teachers. In contrast, many of these people were exceptional leaders -- even if their title didn’t indicate authority. Great leaders should know how to delegate and communicate and instill confidence and commitment. But interestingly enough, these aren’t the qualities that have stood out the most.

Here is my personal top ten list of best leadership attributes based on things I’ve witnessed:

  1. They are the first to show up and the last to leave. They put in as much time as needed to ensure the team's success. If a teacher won’t volunteer to coach junior varsity basketball they step in and commit the 250 hours themselves.

  2. They serve on the front-lines and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. A toilet is flooding in the boys bathroom and the janitor isn’t available? No problem, they’re already racing on-site and plunging in (yeah… pun intended).

  3. They are humble. Their team-speak is so genuine they are literally incapable of quantifying success in non-group terminology. You hear “we”, “us”, and “our” as opposed to “I” and “me”. Jim Collins had this to say about the the greatest leaders in his book Good to Great, “...a Level 5 leader [is] an executive in whom extreme personal humility blends paradoxically with intense professional will.” Well said Jim.

  4. They are accountable for their actions and their teams. It’s easy to be accountable when things go right. The best leaders move everyone else out of the way and jump in front of the train when things go wrong.

  5. They’re honest. We’re talking absolute, uncompromising integrity. You always know you’re getting the real deal. No excuses. No cover-ups. Just a consistent, graceful display of truth.

  6. They establish genuine relationships. As in, they remember your wife and kids names or your favourite bottle of wine... because they care. Not because it’s expected (in which case they’re usually cheating off a notebook).

  7. They know how to follow. Every person has strengths and weaknesses. Great leaders recognize their kryptonite and know how to get out of the way. They let others take charge when they’re more qualified to do so. Guarding territory is good Risk game strategy, not a workplace one.

  8. They’re transparent and approachable. You always know why they’re making decisions and you feel like you’re able to freely share ideas, thoughts and criticisms.

  9. They listen. They empathize. They take the time to understand. And, even if they make a decision you don’t agree with you feel comfortable with it because you know you were heard.

  10. Their sole purpose for existing is to ensure everyone else’s success. They’re the principal who is willing to think up a creative solution to a student disciplinary problem a teacher has in the classroom -- like taking a day from their busy administrative schedule to escort the student... all day (aren’t tablets a great excuse to get out of the office anyway?).

Let’s call people who demonstrate these characteristics heroes.

So, what do we do about the villains in the world. How do we deal with the Danny’s who want to tear down and destroy? How do you escape the rule of a tyrant who manipulates and oppresses?

Become a hero.

At PathFive we believe everyone is capable of being a leader. We value it so much that it’s one of the five pillar values we established when naming the company. Managers have fancy titles. Leaders have the right perspective and attitude. Anyone is capable of carrying that torch. The hardest part is making a decision to do it.

People are stronger when they work together, which is why another pillar value we have is community. Great leaders have the ability to unite people to accomplish incredible things. They build up and encourage. Sound like a great gig?

Don’t fear the villain. Be brave enough to be the hero. It’s better for the organization. It’s better for the people around you. And most importantly, it’s better for you!