Three Pieces of Leadership Advice to Give Your Younger Self

mike gassmann leadership

Years ago, I worked for a company that promoted me to a leadership position from within my team. I showed up the next day like I always did, but suddenly people were listening to everything I said. It occurred to me that even though I wasn’t any smarter than I had been 12 hours earlier, I now had a “leadership” title that made my words more heavily weighted.

It seemed strange at the time, but it prompted me to reflect more earnestly about what kind of leader I would (and wanted to) be. Eighteen years later, the best lessons I’ve learned are remarkably simple – if you can hit pause long enough to do these three things:

#1 – Give up control to let others grow.

This is difficult for anyone, but especially for younger leaders. When you feel passionate about something, and have a lot of expertise around it, letting go of it is tough. But I’ve learned over time that I can be much more effective when I let others take over certain tasks. A lot of times I ended up with an end solution that was much better than what I may have come up with myself. That’s because when I gave up control, fresh ideas and perspectives were introduced into the equation, and a more well-rounded result was achieved.

A lot of people struggle with this, even very successful people, because having control is one way that helps us identify our own self-worth. When I took on my new role overseeing sales and marketing at Van Meter, I assumed I’d continue handling a piece of the automation planning business that had previously been one of my primary focus areas. But one day my boss asked if someone else could do it – and I was offended at first. Automation was something that I had a lot of expertise in, and was passionate about, but suddenly I was being challenged to let go of it. Because I was being led to do other things.

This is where the “letting others grow” part comes in. Do you really believe you’re the only person who can do a particular job well? I had to swallow my pride and turn over that piece of business to someone else on my team. It wasn’t easy, but (surprise, surprise!) the outcome was great – and that reflected well on me too. It should be a sign of strength as a leader when you allow others to do really great things.

#2 – Lead your natural way.

We all have mentors that we learn from, and we want to emulate them because they’re successful. But while I gleaned things from them, I eventually realized that I couldn’t be them. At the end of the day, you are who you are, and you have to be comfortable with that. Know that you have your own set of skills and competencies and weaknesses. You can’t force them to be someone else’s skills and competencies and weaknesses; that’s just a recipe for failure.

Who you are at home should be equivalent to who you are at the workplace. I strongly believe that we all have this natural core that we’re going to go back to anyway, so we need to be OK with it. If we’re not – and this is the biggest take-away here – we won’t be authentic. And authenticity is what leads to stronger relationships. You build deep relationships built on truth. There are no hidden agendas or barriers between you and fellow employees. When you’re able to have real relationships, you can have wonderful conversations.

This is when you’ll be your most successful. This is when you’ll maximize your potential.

#3 – Listen first and talk last.

Here’s a situation that probably sounds familiar: You’re in a meeting and someone is doing more than their fair share of the talking. I’ve certainly seen it before – people hijacking conversations because they think by doing so they’ll be the smartest person in the room. It’s not a flaw, it’s just human nature: when people get their words heard quickly, they believe it raises their value as a whole.

Hint: it doesn’t.

When I was younger and pressured by the need to prove myself, I went into meetings believing the assumptions I had in my mind were accurate and that I had the solution figured out before I knew all the information. I’d start talking about a product or situation so I could demonstrate all the amazing knowledge I had. But I’m certain that I missed the mark occasionally, especially in recognizing what others were truly thinking about. I didn’t understand that in order to assess any situation or issue, I needed to understand the context. I didn’t stop to ask good questions and just listen. The key is to listen first, understand and then determine the solution.

So, listen first. This allows space and time to process the subject at hand. And this is particularly important in order to be a good leader. Remember, your words are more heavily weighted and they must always build authenticity. Because authenticity = truth = strong relationships.

Let silence do the heavy lifting. In the end, you’ll enable others to come up with the best solution.

"Let silence do the heavy lifting."

None of these tips are very complicated, but they’re not all easy to execute either. There are so many moving parts in our life and in business. So many things consume us every day. And when we try to stay involved in everything, we tend to miss the big things around us.

A strong leader doesn’t stay up at night worrying about the small stuff. Honestly, a strong leader worries that someone on their team is going home feeling like they can’t ask about something that’s in their way – or isn’t understanding the big picture at work. As leaders we have to create an environment that allows very natural, authentic conversations to come up so we can build trust. And relationships that are real.

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