My mind goes back to the days when I was young, and my hair was all black. Those were still, for me, the days of corporate innocence, quick judgements and opinions. Looking back, you could even say that I could be opinionated from time to time.
I was transferred from the technical department to the sales department, much to my sadness and despair, but I thought that I would make the most of it. There were two sales managers at that time. Let’s call them Mr HP and Mr PP. HP was a bit of a laid back, tubby fellow, and the feedback that I got about him from the technical people, was that he was a bit of a slime. PP was a great favorite of the technical team. Short, balding, extraverted and gregarious, he also rode a Bullet. Very, very macho indeed. So, in my heart, I was hoping that, if I do have to move to sales, it would be as a subordinate of PP, and not that slimy HP.
Sadness was my fate, and I was consigned to the charge of HP. Over the months, I realized that this was not so bad after all. For all his charm, PP was a micro-manager, whereas HP allowed me to flourish on my own. We’d have a short, daily update, where I would brief him on critical issues and, he would manage me by key parameters. PP on the other hand, would check every letter that his team would have to send out, correcting their commas and spellings and not allowing them any room to maneuver. Over time, I grew to like this freedom, and this whole behavior of treating me like a senior and responsible person, and not like a young punk.
There was a time when there was a big screw-up with a customer. I was used to dealing with his elder brother, who was very clear in what he wanted. His brother was, on the other hand, a confused soul. There was an occasion, where he gave me an order without defining the specifications, and despite my repeated requests, refused to specify what he wanted. My mistake, as I think back, was not to put this in writing. To cut a long story short, the order was a mess, and the customer howled with anger.
HP’s boss, the Department Manager, wanted blood. My head was on the line. To my surprise, while HP castigated me in private and made sure I found a solution, took the responsibility for what I did. He shielded me, and saved my job.
More than that, in those earlier years, he gave me my first lessons on leadership and people. Remember, I walked in with the firm opinion that HP was a slimy character, a weasel. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Yes, while you must develop an instinct about people, you must allow yourself the flexibility to change and modify your opinion when you realize you were mistaken. People are not labels.
To me, he was a great leader, and the first whom I truly respected. I have not met him since, but I still hold him close in my heart. As a leader, he allowed me to grow, he shielded me, and while he took the onus for the mistake (the-buck-stops-here truly played out), he did not let me get away without me acknowledging my mistake and ensuring I found a solution. No cover ups were allowed under his watch. The organization was bigger than the individual.
Those were early days indeed. Very early days, but those early lessons started to shape me, and to define my thoughts on leadership.
They forced me to ask the question – how do you define a great leader?