As a Millennial coming up in your career, you may be approaching your first leadership position, if you aren’t there already. Well this is for you. During my career as a young military leader I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I want to share with you the hardest lesson I’ve learned:
When I first joined the forces, I had a vision of working in a group of awesome people, with me, their leader, just being one of team, and everyone liking me. So I went to work to make this happen. I did this through some very healthy ways: being friendly, having a good sense of humour, trying to make reasonable and practical decisions; put my team before myself… the classics. Buuuuuuut… then I also had some really unhealthy practices: going out partying and drinking with the team… KE$HA video styles… all the time. Just basically trying to be the biggest “bro” I could be. It was fun… really fun. But a few things happened over time:
1) My team did see me as a “bro,” but not as their leader. This was fine when things were going well, but when we had to really push and the situation got sporty, the team didn’t see me as the guy that could get them out of the pinch, they saw me as the fun loving party guy who is now putting them through hardship.
2) My superiors didn’t see me as a leader, they saw me as a guy who loved partying with the troops (which I did). When I brought up legitimate issues to better the welfare of my guys, they didn’t take my suggestions seriously, because they thought I was just pandering to my friends and not putting the mission first.
3) I got self-conscious about my actual leadership abilities because my plan to be liked wasn’t working the way I was hoping, I was degrading a crucial piece, credibility. This made me less of the leader I wanted to be, and more of a leader developing a complex.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be liked by your team. It’s all about how. Are you liked because you make the best call for the mission and the team, care about your people, and do everything you can to help them succeed… or are you liked because you buy the first round of shots and tell hilarious drinking stories? This may be a very obvious folly to many of you reading, but when I was 24, fresh out of university, and given my first troop of Combat Engineers to command, I totally lived the lesson, hard. I honestly thought I could successfully pull off both, with a bit more effort on the latter.
If you are in the same trap I was in, I want to let you know, it is recoverable. Ease off the gas, and work to highlight the good leadership qualities you do have. This doesn’t mean don’t let your hair down with the team when appropriate, it just has to be, well, appropriate. Over time, you will be seen less as the fun party person, and more of the trusted leader that your people could turn to for direction, guidance,and when things get tough, safety.
If you have a hard leadership lesson you have lived, please leave it in the comment section.
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Biren Bandara, BSc, CD