Leadership 5: Leadership is a sacred trust and it is a big responsibility. Those you lead are entrusting you with years of their life.

Leadership is a sacred trust.  If you lead well, you can give your team some of the best years of their life.

A note

My leadership posts going forward will be dealing with important individual topics such as how to build trust, how to make your team feel safe, how to listen like a leader, and the format will change a bit to help you decide which elements are relevant to you.  Each post will begin with a paragraph, “In a Nutshell” which will summarize what the post will cover.  After that the elements will be listed and numbered in case you want to jump to a certain topic to read or review later.

As I have mentioned before, most of these thoughts are common sense, but we have rarely seen them applied them to leadership. I hope to provide a vision of what your office could look like where your team looks forward to coming to work, and you enjoy leading them.  It is hard to create  something for which we have no model, and I hope these posts provide glimpses of what you want and how to get there.

Leadership 5: Leadership is a sacred trust and it is a big responsibility. Those you lead are entrusting you with years of their life. If you are not going to value their time and do your best to provide an enriching experience to those on your team, don’t accept a leadership role, stick with what you are good at.

I mentioned in the last post that when I was asked, “What do you do for a living?” my response varied from the official Human Relations job posting.

“People give me months or years of their life  and in return I help them recognize their unique gift, I give them the confidence to use that gift, with the goal of sharing it, so that when they leave they will on a trajectory for greatness.”

The person persisted, “Yes, but what do you DO?”

“Well, I build teams. And on these teams people feel safe, with team members who support each other. They come in early and stay late, look for new ways to support people in crisis, and they give everything they have to help people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”). What comes of that? They look forward to coming to the office because they know that they will be engaged in a meaningful work that can change people’s lives, and that their contribution will be recognized and celebrated.  When I focus on taking care of my team, I know that they will thrive, and they in turn will take care of the detainees who call us for help. They leave my internship with a burning desire to help others, a strong desire to lead others, and scores of them now are changing the world one heart, one person at a time.  I have had 126 interns, and innumerable coworkers and lawyers I have mentored and led over forty years.  They are my legacy.  But enough about me, what do you do?”

“Bad bosses like to think that people quit their jobs because they are lazy or want more money. But most people quit due to poor supervision, decreased employee morale, lack of employee development and feeling disconnected from overall company priorities and objectives.” Credit: Elizabeth, “What contributes to decreased employee morale? The Social Workplace”

My Leadership Principles based on viewing leadership as a sacred trust and a big responsibility:

1. In taking on a leadership role you must accept that you are responsible for the growth and development of each team members as a human being.

2. You are responsible for cultivating and nurturing the well-being of your team as a whole.

3. You are responsible for getting to know each team member’s strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears.

4. You are responsible for developing a supportive, nurturing environment.

5. Your goal must be to inspire your team members to become more successful than you were.

A good leader implements these principles, a bad boss betrays each and every one of the them.

1. In taking on a leadership role you must accept that you are responsible for the growth and development of each team members as a human being.

“My number one belief about being a leader is that you are a servant.” Tony Robbins

Simon Sinek draws a parallel between being a good leader and being a good parent. The joy of parenting doesn’t come from the mundane tasks involved in day-to-day parenting, it comes from seeing our children do things for the first time, to see them feel proud of what they have accomplished. Leadership is exactly the same. Often the day-to-day tasks associated with our job as a leader don’t bring joy, but seeing our team members grow, develop their self-confidence, learn new skills, all so that they can achieve more than they ever thought possible is the true reward for good leadership.

And like parents, leaders must occasionally discipline team members.  I will admit, I was bad at disciplining, I guess I just wanted everyone to like me, so I was weak at confronting someone who was slacking.

I will give a painful example.  I once had a team of four interns, three of whom were dedicated, hardworking and fun. 

Rebecca, Grace, Coach Karen, and Marina

The other was disinterested and had taken the internship only to be near his significant other since they attended law schools in different cities.  This character could have been a real drag on the team because he wasn’t really interested in what we did and just spent time looking at his phone instead of answering calls on the detainee phone.  I had a few discussions with him, he always promised to do better but it did not change his behavior for long, so I came up with this great and intentionally juvenile idea. I would give out gold stars based on the number of packets each intern sent out to detainees.  I would also award a gold star to an intern for  dealing with a hard call well, or work on an additional project.  I know, corny, but I figured this guy would be embarrassed into doing some work.  I bought the stars, and announced the plan. Immediately Grace came into my office with a request.  “Please don’t do this.  We all know he is not working, and I don’t think anything will change that.  And I love Marina and Rebecca dearly, but I am so competitive that I will do everything necessary to beat their butts and  get the most gold stars.  So please, for the sake of our team, don’t do it.”

I ditched the competitive, our slacker continued to slack, and the other three did the work of five people.  And then one morning Rebecca asked for a sheet of stars and as I passed her cubicle I noticed that she put them all around the monitor of her computer and proclaimed herself the undisputed champion intern.

Photo courtesy of Rebecca

We had another example of how leadership is like parenting, kids will play off one parent against the other.  To Dad: “Can I go, please, Mom said it was alright.” Then to Mom “Can I go, please, Dad said it was alright.”  The interns had a joke in our office that if you have a request, go to Mr. Bob, he always says yes, and Karen will say no, so my interns bought me a button and when you pushed it it said “yes” in a dozen different voices and intonations.  I reminded Karen of this and she sent this text:

I suppose there are two lessons from these stories.  The first is that, you can be a good leader but you will always have things to improve about about yourself.  The second is that when you build a team which feels safe and supported, they will have fun, often at the leader’s expense.

2. You are responsible for cultivating and nurturing the well-being of your team.

What does it mean to make leadership a sacred trust?  You start from the idea that the humans on your team are most important asset. Then you cultivate that asset.

Having started college in 1967 I was, like half the students at San Diego State, an organic gardener. And I carried the principles of organic gardening over to my leadership philosophy.  I know that sounds like a bunch of hippy groovy nonsense but please hear me out. 

Okay, maybe it is a little hippy-groovy, but so was I!

Industrial-based chemical farming often involves punching holes in parched, dead dirt, shooting in a seed, then giving it a squirt of chemical nutrients in the form of artificial fertilizer and repeatedly flooding the field for irrigation because the dirt does not hold water well and it evaporates quickly from the bare surface.  Plants can grow quickly in this artificial environment, but they are fragile and need other chemicals to protect them from insects and disease. In this type of farming the role of the dirt is to hold the plant upright.  It could easily be replaced by a new form of plastic.  

Credit: BBC

Although modern farming practices cause erosion, water pollution, and pesticide poisoning of other crops, this type of farming is considered a necessary evil if we are to feed an expanding population with a diminishing number of farms.  And that may or may not be true, but that doesn’t mean we have to treat our garden plots that way.  In the same way that spirit-breaking office conditions are tolerated by large organizations trying to mass produce both products and workers, when we are creating a more intimate environment for our team, we can choose a different path.

A leader nurtures the growth and well-being of their team members.

In organic gardening you focus on growing the soil, and trust that healthy soil will give the plant everything it needs, support, nutrients, water.  In the same way, a leader in an office nurtures the environment in which team works, and this allows the team members to relax, to thrive and grow, and they will then be free to focus all their energy and creativity on the project at hand.

Credit: Waxing Kara

Your garden plot might start out as a patch of dead dirt, but when you add organic material such as leaves, grass clippings, and animal manure, dig it into the dirt, water carefully, the microbes in the manure will feed on the green material, which will attract earthworms which aerate the soil by tunneling through it as they eat the new blend of materials, and their “castings” or worm poop, is a wonderful natural fertilizer.  You have converted dry, hard dirt, into rich, dark, loose soil.

Credit: Gardener’s Path

 In the non-organic environment, it takes a machine to punch a hole in the dirt.  In the organic garden you can effortlessly push a finger in the soil to plant a seed.  The organic gardener tends the living soil, and the soil tends the plants by providing all the nutrients the plants need to grow.  And the loose, rich soil acts like a sponge to constantly supply water to the plant and a deep layer of mulch reduces evaporation.  It is a beautiful process which improves over time.

In all my leadership roles, I used my organic gardening philosophy to help my team members grow.  In my garden I walked through it every day, checking each plant for progress or problems.  In the office I monitored each team member’s progress by talking to each of them every day, taking care of their personal and professional needs by listening to them and helping them sort things out when necessary. 

In the garden the soil provides support so the plants can grow tall, and I made my team feel safe by explaining clearly what was expected of them, providing support through materials, a proper work area and unlimited access to me for questions.  And once I trusted them and they trusted me, I knew that the care I gave to them would be mirrored in their maximum efforts to take care of the detainees who were calling us for help.  I was the gardener, the interns were the soil that supported the flowers, the detainees calling for help.  It was a beautiful thing which resulted in growth in the interns, the detainees and myself.

The bad boss is the traditional farmer, looking at their team as mere means to an end, interchangeable plants which, if they falter, can be yanked out so another identical plant can be jammed into their position.  To a boss the workers don’t need tending, their only job is to shut up, take orders, perform perfectly, or get out.  It is an artificial environment that we should not, and hopefully would not, accept in a personal relationship, but which we must endure so we can earn the almighty dollar. And I have worked under bad bosses who thought their role was to act like a dictator and make us jump.

When my friend Martin began medical school he recoiled from the bedside manner of some of the doctors leading medical students on rounds.  “They treat the patients as solely disease-bearing entities.  They stop at a bed, open the chart and say ‘This is the kidney stone we will be operating this afternoon.’ I try and make eye contact with the patient and say hello, but it’s not enough to undo that damage.”

Bad bosses treat their workers the same way. They were only interested in seeing the work completed, they had no interest in the entities on their team who were doing the work, their motto was “My way or the highway!” and on the weekend it literally made my stomach hurt to think about going to work.  Those bosses stole years of my life and I will never forgive them.

“When I say jump, you jump!  And then, by God, you hang there until I give you permission to come down!”  Drill Sergeant Roy Burchfield, Platoon D-5-1, Fort Polk Louisiana, July 1971 – not a good model for a leader, but an excellent motivator! He scared the hell out of me.

I have worked on teams where I was a team member and it was such a great experience that I was happier at work than at home alone.  I was a thriving plant in a happy garden. I trusted the leader to protect me and teach me, the team members to support and encourage me, the work we were undertaking was changing the lives of people, and when I did something wrong it was treated as a learning experience, and when I did something well it was celebrated.  When I worked as a legal aid lawyer when something great happened we had “beer alerts” where the entire office had to stop what they were doing and go drink beer, shoot pool or go bowling to celebrate.  We had changed the world by helping one person and that was worth a toast! 

In my role as leader of several offices, I tried to recreate that environment in which people thrived, and many of those who worked with me cried when they had to leave.  If you lead well, you can give your team some of the best years of their life.

Be the leader that enriches the lives of your team, not the boss that steals the joy from life.

3. You are responsible for getting to know each team member as individuals with strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, good days and bad.

How do you create such a nurturing environment?  You begin getting to know your team, and you do that by listening to your team, you ask questions, you observe them interacting with others on the team.  There will be an entire leadership post on listening as the most important skill for a leader and in that section we will discuss how from time-to-time you will have the honor of being asked to help someone who is struggling.  Then you will hear the hopes and fears of your team members and be allowed to help guide them through a bad day.  But getting to know your team starts with paying attention to them.

I mention in the introduction my desire was to help people recognize their unique gift, give them the confidence to use that gift, with the goal of sharing it, which will put them on a trajectory for greatness when they leave.  How can you do that with your team?  You must get to know each individual member as a human being in the same way that an organic garden must tend to each individual plant.

What is each team member good at, what do they like to see on their “To Do” list, what are they bad at, what do they hate to see on that list?  I then try and assign work to them that they will enjoy doing because they are good at it, and which it will be easy for them to be successful.  Occasionally I had to assign something they are not good at and they would not enjoy, and I was always  sure to recognize that this will require some sacrifice on their part, that I provided support for them, and I made sure to celebrate their efforts.  That is how one-on-one leadership works.

In the course of getting to know what people are good at, I tried to zero in on one skill that they have that no one else on the team has. Often the team member didn’t realize that not everyone could do what they did so well and they were surprised when I pointed I out. I would then find projects that would use that skill.

We had two great examples of this one summer with two magnificent interns, Brandon and Medha. 

Brandon had learned Spanish during his two years in Paraguay with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  His Spanish was better than most professionals for whom Spanish was their first language.  Brandon used any extra time at work (and I have a sneaking suspicion he used a lot of time at home) to translate materials for immigration detainees from English to Spanish.  And I am talking about 95-page documents which would make a professional translator think twice about tackling. His efforts greatly expanded the variety of materials for to the Spanish-speakers who called on our hotline.

While Brandon was translating, he was sitting next to Medha who was constantly on the lookout for materials we were lacking to help detainees. One of the projects she tackled addressed the pressing need for some callers who had made mistakes in the past to get an official copy of their criminal record.  When such detainees went to court to ask for a bond which they could pay to be released so they could pursue their cases out of detention, the government always had a copy of their criminal report which they would not share with the detainee, and which they used against the detainee, often in an inaccurate way.  For instance, the government might say a detainee had been convicted of a crime when in fact they had been mistaken arrested and the charges dropped.  But when a detainee objected and explained that the no charges had been brought, the Immigration Judge would usually believe the government’s  piece of paper over a detainee’s sworn testimony.  The detainee needed their own copy of their criminal record to refute any exaggerations by the government’s attorney.

Medha made it her mission to determine, state-by-state, how detainees could get a copy of their criminal record.  This turned into a Herculean task because some states had a uniform system for the entire state, while others allowed each county to set up their own system.  Medha was constantly on the phone verifying the procedure, asking about workarounds for states that required on-line applications from detainees who had no internet access.  In jurisdictions which charged a fee, Medha pressed, requested and cajoled county administrators into providing a procedure to request a fee waiver for a detainee with no money.  By the end of the summer she had produced an extensive, color coded chart which proved invaluable to interns who were helping detainees get a copy of their criminal record.

Summer 2018 Detainee Hotline Team, From left, intern co-coach Nicole, Medha, Salina, Brandon, Gaby, Trina, me.

How did Brandon and Medha end up with tasks so well suited to them?  Because I asked them what they liked to do.  Simple as that.  I mentioned this once to a boss and got the response, “I don’t care what people are good at.  Whether people like the work I give them is not my problem.”

Respect your team, know your team, and you can help them flourish.

4. You are responsible for developing a supportive environment.

Encourage your team to look for ways to change how you do things.

We are going to have entire posts discussing how to make your team feel safe and respected so they can use all their creative energies to accomplish the mission.  Here I want to discuss one aspect of how to inspire your team to take an active role in changing how your office works, and how the world works.

During the first day orientation I encouraged my team to make suggestions on how we could do things better, and they responded with enthusiasm.  Once we implemented their suggested procedure and they could see it in action, their self-confidence bloomed as they realized that they really could change how things were done in our office, which affected those we served across the country.  And I believe this will help them going forward in having their courage to make suggestions to their leaders, and to accept suggestions from those they lead.

I once had an intern come into my office to report that a caller had never fought being deported, had signed all the necessary papers right away, and was now desperate to get out of detention after having languished for more than a year behind bars, waiting to be deported.  ICE was telling him to be patient, that they were working on getting permission to send him home, check back next month, so far his country’s consulate had not issued the proper travel documents to allow him to go home.  This had been going on month after month and he was climbing the walls.  I told my intern there was nothing we could do to help him because we couldn’t force the consulate to do anything, they were a sovereign power.  Then I saw such a wave of disappointment wash over her face that it stopped me cold.  “What are you thinking?” I asked. 

“You say, ‘There is nothing we can do.’ Well I say that is not an acceptable answer.”  And I had to admit she was right, telling someone in his situation to just gut it out, accept that they may be behind bars for another 6 months or a year was becoming complicit in tormenting them. “Okay, I agree with you, it is unacceptable, so what are we going to do? Sit down and let’s think of something”  We hatched a plan which was  half theatrical, and half legal advocacy. 

We decided we would send an email to consulates which had not issued travel documents.  The email read:

“Greeting, our office was recently contacted by Dean Price, A#123456789, who stated that he is a citizen of Belize, and he is currently detained by ICE in the LaSalle Detention Center in Louisiana.  He contacted our office because he has a final order of deportation, he is prepared to return to Belize and he believes that he has done everything necessary to allow your office to issue travel documents for his repatriation.  It is his understanding that to date those travel documents have not been issued and he contacted us and asked that we write to you to see if there is any additional information he can provide to you to facilitate the issuance of his travel documents.  We are including the New Orleans ICE Field Office on this email because we have been told they have been working diligently to get the travel documents.  If you need any additional information, please contact our office.”

There were two reasons for sending this email.  Occasionally the Consulate would answer my email and say, “We have no record of this person being a citizen of our country, and accordingly, no travel documents will be issued.”  ICE would then quickly release the person quickly.

Or the travel documents might be issued, and the person would be returned home. 

Usually what happened was nothing, radio silence, our email was not responded to or even acknowledged.  Which brings us to the theatrical aspect of writing the emails – their non-response was sending a message to ICE that this consulate is not going to play ball.  We knew ICE had been trying to get travel docs and failing, so when the ABA asked for the documents, and the consulate failed to answer, ICE was even more convinced the consulate was never going to act and they would release the detainee more quickly.

So this strategy turned out to be good for detainees, good for ICE, but it also sent the intern over the moon to see how powerful she was, she had changed how we did things and long after she left our office, her persistence in making me change my behavior would be effecting detainees for years to come.

5. Your goal must be to inspire your team members to become more successful than you are.

A sign on the door to my office.

Leadership is about inspiring your team to recognize they can accomplish more than they ever imagined.  One of my favorite examples of a person who lives this form of leadership is Sally Pearson of Australia.  Sally was the Track and Field Champion World Champion in the 100 meter hurdles in 2011 and 2017, and the Olympic champion in 2012.

Credit: theaustralian.com.au
Credit: Zimbio

“Gold medalist Sally Pearson of Australia poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women’s 100m Hurdles on Day 12 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 8, 2012 in London, England.”

As the World Champion and Olympic Champion, what does she say is her greatest achievement?  Coaching young women track athletes. 

It isn’t about inspiring these girls to be me. It’s about inspiring them to be better than me. If my actions can inspire others to dream more, become more and achieve more… it will be my greatest accomplishment.” Sally Pearson

That is an example of making leadership a sacred trust, let’s all strive to lead with that intention.

Coming up Next: Leadership 6: Always put the interests of my team ahead of my own personal interests.  Rule #1: It’s not about you.

I need your help. I would like this series of leadership posts to be a living document.  If you are a leader and have some strategies which have worked for you, please let me add them to this.  If you becoming a better leader and have questions, write me.  If you know someone who has recently been promoted, or someone who is struggling, please pass this on so we can include them in the conversation.  We are all in this together! Let us all become the leaders we always wished we had!

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

One thought on “Leadership 5: Leadership is a sacred trust and it is a big responsibility. Those you lead are entrusting you with years of their life.

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