Boss Lesson #1: Be Invested in Your People
This is my site Written by Alora on December 21, 2008 – 10:13 pm

WordPress’ database isn’t big enough for me to list off everything I’ve learned from John over the years: about business, about change, about leadership, about being a workaholic, about managing clients, about corporate politics, etc. You name a topic, and I can probably find at least a handful of lessons I learned from him. I was very lucky to have someone with as vast array of experience, and such a willingness to share it, as a boss and mentor when I was at such an early point in my career. I got to be a sponge and try to absorb as much from him as I could. However, of all of John’s strengths, there was always an interesting mystery about his style: I have never had another boss with the capacity to foster as strong a sense of loyalty as John. I spent years examining what it was about him that was different from other leaders. It took time and distance before I was finally able to put my finger on what it was about John that made all the difference: those of us who worked for him always felt like he was personally invested in us and our success.

In John’s case, part of what made that such an addictive cocktail was his demeanor: John is a very mild-mannered, soft spoken, introverted person. He embodies a very Confucian-type ethic of quiet, steadfast leadership. As a reasonably quiet person, he is someone you often have to silence yourself to listen to — which ultimately means that he gets your undivided focus. John projects a sense of serenity and calm, even in the eye of the storm, and he is masterful about sharing that sense of calm with those around him.

Of course, the irony is that John would probably laugh at that description of him. But the fact is that, particularly in chaotic, dynamic or even out-right dysfunctional environments, someone like John functions as a sanity touchstone who is often instrumental in helping to keep people focused without burning themselves out. And part of the way in which he accomplishes that is by sharing his sense of focused calm with you, and making you feel like you and your problem is the most important thing in the world.

Never underestimate the astounding impact you can have on someone by spending a few minutes making them feel truly heard, and like their problems are genuinely important to you. I can’t count how many times John’s calm, soothing attention brought me back from the brink of some precipitous (and likely regrettable) behavior. And, even more graciously, he always managed to do it without making me feel judged, which was especially valuable once I calmed down and started feeling a bit stupid for allowing myself to get so worked up. And when he was off-site for a long-term project for the better part of a year, and couldn’t be there for me in person, knowing that I was struggling without his direct support and guidance, he emailed me (ironically, always when I needed it most) to tell me that I was doing a great job, and that he understood and was grateful for the burdens I was carrying with little or no help. Six years later I still have those emails. They are a reminder to me of the value of small gestures.

None of this is to say that John doesn’t get upset or impatient or frustrated (and sometimes even show it), but no matter how rough a day John was ever having, I never saw him turn away someone who was struggling. And once his attention was on them, his calming reassurance was always the elixir they needed to pull themselves back up by their bootstraps, and head back out to tackle whatever big bad monster had just kicked their asses and made them want to crawl into a hole.

People who didn’t have that relationship with John often wondered what it was about him that bred such intense affection and loyalty among those of us who did, and the answer is deceptively simple: anytime our faith in ourselves was the most bruised, battered and questionable, John’s faith in us and our abilities helped to restore our confidence and help us face the world again. It was an amazing gift, and one that I work every day to emulate.

  • Kate

    Although I could not put it more eloquently than Alora, I share this admiration and gratitude for John. He’s the dream mentor: smart, sincere, savvy and kind. He gracefully overcame every crazed business situation I ever saw him put into – and there were some doozies.

    If we could bottle John and sell him, I’d brand it “calm, cool and collected, with spicy hint of inspire me!”

  • Alora

    I love it: John in a Bottle. He’s a vintage Sanity Blend. Devastatingly addictive.

  • Christie

    I am glad to see you acknowledge John in your article as one of your most influential bosses. I also add John to the top of my list as one of the most inspiring trusted mentors of my life. John embodies all of the qualities one would expect to find in a leader; vision, patience, integrity, clarity and focus as well the content and desire to teach, as you mention in your article. And while I have had many good bosses that possessed many of these qualities, there was a particular ethereal quality to John that set him above any other. I am for the most part rebellious and anti-authority, always questioning the status quo, but when working with John, I was intuitively called to a higher place. In the presence of his “goodness” I found myself eager to cooperate, work harder, smarter and was ultimately, happier in my work. His ability to influence others along with his demeanor of integrity and diplomacy continue to inspire me to this day. I know that I am a better person for having worked with him.