How Personal Experiences Can Shape our Understanding of Leadership 

By Kevin Smith

Browse the shelves of any bookstore – those precious few that remain these days – and you’re likely to find numerous volumes written on the topic of leadership. Many of these are excellent, and tell the stories of great leaders throughout history. Winston Churchill, for example, who inspired his citizens to withstand Nazi terror bombings during World War II by going door-to-door through the streets of London. Or John Wooden, the famous UCLA men’s basketball coach, who led the Bruins to 10 national championships in 12 years between 1964-1975.   

Churchill and Wooden were certainly some of history’s greatest leaders, but their stories are uncommon. Churchill was at the center of one of the 20th century’s most pivotal moments, while Wooden’s success as a coach is unparalleled in American sport. If we want to be better leaders in our own right, we can certainly learn from these great men. But it can be just as instructive to look at the leaders we have encountered personally  – the good and bad alike – and to consider what made them effective, or why they failed. These stories are more relatable than those of Churchill and Wooden, and can provide context for our own experiences. 

I’m sure everyone can identify someone who was a great leader in their life. For me, that person was Gary Degenhardt, the man who hired me for my first football coaching job when I was just out of college. “Coach Deg,” as we called him, was stern and demanding, and those qualities served him well as a leader. He was disciplined, he enforced structure and he was consistent, almost to the point of being monotonous. That consistency had value, however. It established a way of doing things and allowed his players to know what was expected of them. There were no mysteries with Coach Deg. What you saw was what you got. 

What separated Coach Deg from other authoritarian types I’d encountered, and what I always believed made him a great leader, was the fact he cared about his players. He could come down hard on people, but he picked them up afterwards. He took an interest in their lives, remembering simple things, like the names of their pets, their favorite bands or the subjects in school they enjoyed. He wouldn’t think twice about driving 20 minutes out of his way to pick up a player for practice who needed a ride, or to find someone a tutor who was struggling with Math class. Players knew Coach Deg was tough. They also knew he cared. They accepted the former because he showed them the latter. 

Conversely, we have likely been around people in leadership positions who failed at the task. A former principal at a school where I once taught comes to mind. He was a poor leader because he was unaccountable. Mostly, he approached each day trying to minimize his role in any conflicts or important decisions that might arise. To do so, he “delegated” responsibility to the assistant principals, then blamed them when things went wrong. This is the antithesis of leadership. Leaders must assume responsibility for their domain and must own the results – good, bad or indifferent. Those who cannot should not seek to be in charge. 

Other traits of ineffective leaders include disorganization, lack of vision and poor communication. The latter is essential. Leaders who communicate well check two important boxes. First, they convey the standards, structures and objectives of their organization to those beneath them. This gets people on the same page and pulling towards a common goal. Second, they develop good rapport with their employees, the members on their team and their co-workers. In a world that is so technology driven, and where so much communication is done through devices, talking with one another can feel at times like a lost art. It’s an invaluable resource, however, for leaders who seek to strengthen relationships and develop camaraderie. 

Leadership is not something reserved only for those in charge, however. We can all be everyday leaders in our respective environments. One way to do this is to be passionate about our pursuits. That can feel difficult at times, when work bogs us down, or we feel unchallenged, or we’ve been doing the same job for a long time and the days seem monotonous. But if we seek out the ways to stay engaged and to attack our everyday missions with passion, we will serve as role models for others. Anyone you know in your life who is passionate about what they do is probably good at it, and probably an inspiration to others. When we engage with purpose, we rub off on those around us who may need someone to set that example for them. Leadership is not demonstrated by telling others what to do. It is found in our actions.. 

Another characteristic of everyday leaders is their ability to listen. In a world where social media platforms give everyone a voice, and where “hot takes” are all the rage, the value of listening has diminished. While others are bloviating about this or that, effective leaders listen. They do so to let others know their thoughts are valued, and to be supportive, but also to increase their awareness of a situation. Knowing what others think, and why they feel a certain way, increases one’s ability to act. It’s hard to take action, or be decisive, when the only voice we hear is our own. The degree to which we are respected has a lot to do with how well we listen. 

Whether we are a designated leader by virtue of our title or simply strive to lead more in our everyday lives, there are simple skills we can hone to improve our aptitude. Discipline, structure and consistency are all tools of effective leaders, as are passion and a willingness to listen. Bolstering relationships with those around us through effective communication is a must, as is being accountable. When we do these things, we tend to draw people to us. As Coach Wooden said, “Good values attract good people.” That’s a perfect place to start. 


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