Leadership 7: Put the team first, Rule #2: It’s ONLY about you

Art Credit: Pinterest, Natasha Nkonjera

A few words regarding our current situation: Stories are told of a time when people left their caves and traveled by foot, or bicycle, or automobile to central stations where they boarded mass transit so they could touch other humans and breathe the same air.  Once downtown, they would disperse and reassemble in smaller groups where, faces uncovered and hands rarely washed, they would spend the day, elbow to elbow, working, laughing, and grabbing each other’s pens as if they had not a care in the world.  We call this time period “The Office Age.”

Gaby and Trina

And now, in the U.S. of A. we hear stories that far across the sea, in countries where people speak languages which many Americans take great pride in not understanding, people are returning to downtown, with temperatures and precautions taken, where they enjoy working in full view of other humans.  I believe that we too will someday return to the office, but in our current situation we Americans just seem to need a little extra push to stop bickering and get our shit together.  And when we return to this New Office Age, leadership will be more important than ever. Let us begin.

Leadership 7: Put the team first, Rule #2: It’s ONLY about you

Paul Alderton’s Rule #1 is that leadership as not about you, but rather it 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, you should not accept the role of supervisor.

Rule 2: It’s ONLY about you.

You will recall that Paul’s Rule # 2 is “It is ONLY about you”  This rule highlights how only you as leader have the power to establish the environment in which your team will be calm and happy to be at work, and where they will thrive.   A bad boss creates a negative space where people drag themselves to work in the morning, and bolt for the door at quitting time.  I have been a bolter in some jobs. 

Leadership 7 In a Nutshell: The leader creates the climate (the overall manner in which the office is structured and functions) as well as the weather (what kind of day is the team going to have today?)  And you as a leader are responsible for keeping the office calm and happy, even when you are in a bad mood, being careful of how you speak to people and apologizing when necessary when you have an all-too-human slip.  If you create a calm, caring environment, your team will reflect that.  You must always safeguard your team and step up when one of your team members is being treated unfairly.  And last, but most importantly, help your team have some fun – the work may be important, it needs to get done, but let’s be honest, your team is not storming the beaches of Normandy!

The Principles for Rule #2:

1. The leader creates the climate and the weather in the office.

If you are a leader, you can’t afford the indulgence of being in a bad mood and taking it out on your team.

What can you do if you as the leader are in a bad mood?

A leader pays attention to the tone they use while speaking with their team members.

Team members know how to respond to a moody boss.

2. How your team functions is a reflection of you.

3. How the environment shapes the worker.

4. A leader ensures that their team members are treated fairly, even at their own expense.

5. Don’t forget to have fun!

1. The leader creates the climate and the weather in the office.

Credit: NYTimes

Nowadays most people are familiar with the difference between the climate and the weather.  Climate being the prevailing conditions in a region throughout the year, averaged over a series of years.  For purposes of this discussion, the climate is the long-term structure and functioning of the office over the course of a year.  Weather is the state of the atmosphere on a daily, and sometimes hourly basis. 

Creating the climate in the office – what is the structure and how does the office function?

When it comes to Rule #2, “It’s ONLY about you,” the goal of the leader is to create an environment where each team member feels safe and calm, where they feel supported, they are encouraged to be creative, and mistakes are treated as opportunities to learn.  When urgent problems arise, they are handled with a deliberate level of attention and without panic. Team members trust and support each other, they feel respected as people, and respected for the skills they bring to the team.  The team is given the resources they need to do their job, as well as sufficient time to accomplish their work.  Equally important, their time out of the office is respected – they are left alone after work, on the weekend and during vacations.

Sound like a great place to work?

You bet, and you, as leader can create such a place.  The description above captures what the remaining posts will address, and each post will give you the steps you need to take to creating such an environment.

Creating the weather in the office.  “Today’s office weather forecast is sunny with occasional gusts of laughter.”

Today we are going to talk about the office weather, and how you, as the leader, will have the power to determine whether your team members are going to have a bright, sunny day today; or a gloomy, foreboding eight hours, as the team waits to see if Hurricane Bad Boss will spiral out of their office and into their cubicle slinging degrading lightning bolts.

Granted, every day will not be a day at the beach, but we certainly can do our best to avoid days filled with unnecessary stress and worry – they drain us and sap our creativity and steal our joy.

My vision for an average day in my office:

Picture courtesy of Karen Castillo, third from left

If you are a leader, you cannot afford the indulgence of being in a bad mood and taking it out on your team.

John Maxwell sums up what some of offices are like:

“I have seen companies where the leadership is so volatile, people would arrive to work in the morning and say, ‘What kind of mood is he in today?’ That is a company that has to fight just to stay standing, even when there aren’t big challenges coming from the outside.  I’ve seen it happen, many times, and it’s incredibly destructive to the organization.”

I have worked in offices where we learned to decode the mood of the boss as soon as they walk through the door. On time? That’s a good sign.  Late? Watch out! Carrying flowers? Bodes well. Dressed in bright colors? The sun may shine on us all today!  Dressed in all black, eyes straight ahead? Time to put up the storm warning flag and batten down the hatches!

Credit: ThoughtCo

What can you do if you as the leader, are in a bad mood?

Some days you are just not going to feel like Positive Patty.  You just don’t have the energy, or what my Dad called the old “get up and go,” to bring energy to the team.  When I had such a day, I would make a formal announcement to my team.  “I am not in a good mood today, I don’t know why, it is not your fault, I will remain available to answer questions, but my door will be closed and I will be listening to country western music and weeping quietly.”

And people would leave me alone on those days, limiting needed questions, but the fairies of good cheer would always have their way in the end.  Every time I step out of my office I would return to and find something new: a piece of candy on my desk.  Perhaps a yellow Post-It note with a smiley face, or a cartoon, with the instructions: “Extra points for coloring within the lines!”

It is hard to stay in a bad mood when your team has your back.

A leader pays attention to the tone they use while speaking with their team members.

From time to time we all mess up and it is important to apologize when we let our mood dictate how we act.  Apologizing builds trust, both because you are acknowledging the weakness of being human and making mistakes, but also because it models the strength it takes to say you are sorry.  It also gives your team members permission to apologize for their future mistakes as well. 

We had a Skype call on my birthday this year with my former intern co-coaches, Karen and Nicole, as well as former interns, Adiba, Catalina, and Suryah.

During the call Adiba told this story about me.

“One day I went into Mr. Bob’s office and asked him a question, he answered, then I went back to work, and 15 minutes later he shows up at my cubicle, ‘Adiba, I want to apologize for the way I snapped at you, just now.  I shouldn’t use that harsh tone, maybe I’m getting sick or something and I don’t have much patience today.’ And I had no idea what he was talking about.  He didn’t snap at me!”  And everyone laughed saying they had gotten similar apologies.  But I had apologized because I had heard my tone, even if she hadn’t, and I was worried that perhaps I had  hurt her feeling.

And trust me, team members know how to respond to a moody boss.

Credit: Pinterest, Natasha Nkonjera

2. How your team functions is a reflection of you.

If you want to know how you are doing as a leader, pay attention to your team.  If they are calm and not rushing around nervously, if they are chatting quietly as they work with an occasional smile, if they are stepping in to help each other, then you are doing a good job.

After 14 years of struggle with PTSD which included panic attacks, I eventually worked things out and became a very calm person.  After that, it was imperative that I create a space where my team members could also calmly approach their work.

(I once mentioned to a friend that I wanted to meditate more to become calmer and she responded that if I appeared any calmer they would bury me.)

An example: helping my team cope with being late to work.

I am a creature of habit and I like to have structure in my life.  When I worked at the ABA in Washington, DC, I would get up at 3:00 in the morning, leave for the middle school track by 3:20, knock out the day’s running workout, and return home by 4:30, lift weights until 5:30, make breakfast for Rebecka so she could eat and read in bed, leave for work at 6:50, arrive at the office at 7:30, do Transcendental Meditation until 7:55 and start my work day at 8:00.  (When people heard I got up at 3:00 a.m. they often asked when I went to sleep. “7:00 pm, like any normal adult.”) That schedule usually did not vary by more than five minutes during a month.  I am not saying that is something anyone else should try, and in fact, when we lived in Honduras and people discussed how to avoid being kidnapped, we were told we must vary our routines every day.  Fortunately, no one tried to abduct me because I would have been a sitting duck.  One of the reasons I like about having this type of structure is it reduces the number of decisions I need to make each day, and fewer decisions means a calmer attitude.  But I digress.

Because I prefer such an eccentric schedule, in offices where I have been the leader I always let my co-workers and interns pick their own work schedule.  In Texas when Jennifer and I started ProBAR I arrived at the office before dawn at 4:00 and left at 7:00 in the evening, with a long lunch, a run, and a nap during the day.  Jennifer arrived in the office around 10:00 in the morning but usually worked past midnight.  I could have made her come to work at 8:00 but she would have just been going through the motions until she woke up around 10:00.

With my interns at the ABA I let them choose their schedule and they could change it as they wished.  When one of them was running late they would always text me, I would text back, “Thank you for writing and I don’t care.” When they arrived, they always apologized and I responded, “You don’t have to apologize, and you don’t really need to tell me you are going to be late.  I don’t care about the small stuff because I know you are doing your best and you are doing a great job here.  That said, it is probably good practice to keep texting because some future boss might give a damn.  But the point I want to make is, next time you are going to be late I don’t want you to freak out about getting in trouble, just accept the reality that today you are running late,  fire off a text, and go back to your reading.”

This Facebook post by my former intern Patton Eddins (nee Beggs) shows the effect that approach has.

As you will see in coming sections, the environment I wanted to build was centered around calmness. Life is too short to worry about inconsequential things. 

3. How the environment shapes the worker

I have contrasted bosses vs leaders thusly: a boss can take what should be a perfect job and make it a living hell, and a leader can take a disorganized group of underachievers and turn them into a happy, supportive, dynamic team that can accomplish more than the ever imagined.

Simon Sinek recounts how an employee who worked at two casinos led two very different lives depending where he was working.

Simon Sinek – EMPATHY,  Watch entire video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJyNoJCAuzA

Remember: people are giving you years of their life; you must strive to provide an environment in which they thrive.

A leader must protect their team members, a tale from the Fire Department.

Captain Wood in the apparatus room.

I was once working on Captain Wood’s crew so things were pretty relaxed. Each morning in the fire department we had “line-up” at 8:00 for shift change – the on-coming crew would assemble in the apparatus room behind the fire trucks, and as their replacement arrived, the members of the crew being relieved could go home.  Once morning Captain Ledesma, our tough-as-nails and proud-of-it captain, was about to off duty, and he approached Captain Wood at precisely 8:00, pointing at his watch, “Your rookie is late!”  Woody shrugged, and Ledesma continued, “This is the second time he has been late, do you want me to counsel him?”  Woody shook his head, “I’ll take care of it.”  Just then we saw the rookie enter the kitchen and as he came around the corner, Ledesma moved to block the door to keep him from entering the apparatus room.  “Let him in, I said I have this,” Woody called out.  Ledesma didn’t move so Woody continued, “Hey rookie, you have to get here on time or your firefighter career will be over before it begins!”  With that Ledesma moved aside, and the rookie entered carrying a box of donuts. Woody took one look and said, “Kid, you got to get here on time.  But if you show up with donuts on days you are late, I guarantee you will have a long and happy career in the fire department.”

4. A leader ensures that their team members are treated fairly, even at their own expense.

Credit: SlideShare

In the spirit of “Leaders choose to eat last,” I also believe that a leader should not accept a benefit that is unjustly denied to their team members.  Oh sure, people with more rank will always have more privileges, everyone accepts that.  But when an arbitrary and unjust rule is imposed which hurts your team members, you have a duty to stand up for them.

A good example was my ill-fated protest against OTO –“Other Time Off,” which was a benefit we had at the ABA.  One year the ABA decided not to have raises, so the Executive Director set up the OTO program in which every employee was allowed to take one half a day off each week through the summer months.  It was a popular plan, most people took off Friday afternoon and it boosted morale without costing a lot in productivity.  Summertime? Friday afternoon? How much work actually gets done in those last few hours?  I had four full-time interns and I gave them the OTO option and then I was informed by the-powers-that-be that interns were not eligible for OTO because they were not ABA staff.  I objected.  Objected denied. I pouted.  Pouting ignored. So that summer I refused to take my OTO. If my interns couldn’t take theirs, I was not going to take it either.  (The second summer it occurred to me that Karen and I were the only people who knew when our interns were supposed to be there, so we gave them OTO every summer after that.  In fact, when the ABA stopped offering OTO, and all the ABA staff were in mourning, Nicole and I continued to let our interns have a half day each week to enjoy Washington, DC during their brief summer internship. Touché, powers-that-be!)

What did my interns think of my heroic stand in refusing to take OTO?  They thought I was nuts, they lobbied me to take the time off, they said they would be fine, they loved what they were doing. But I can be stubborn and if they had to be in the office, well by god, I would be in the office, too! A few years later one of those interns who had become a lawyer and she wrote me to tell me that she had faced a similar situation at work. Her law firm had started a program with a benefit that included everyone, both lawyers and support staff, but arbitrarily, and inexplicitly, excluded her paralegal.  She objected, and took her objection all the way to the very top, inspired to stand on principle because of her summer internship OTO experience.  “Once I realized that what they were doing wasn’t right I kept thinking about you and your stubborn stand demanding OTO for interns. I knew I couldn’t let my intern down! You remain my Ride or Die!”

Recognizing what is fair and unfair is not rocket science.

Credit: Good

5. Don’t forget to have fun!

Since we are going to spend 1/3 of our life at work, 90,000 hours over the course of a lifetime, we have some fun!  I am curious by nature so I always had many things to entertain folks and give them a few minutes of distraction during the day when they took a break from improving the world.

A few suggestions on sowing fun in the workplace


I was always happy when team members would stop by to check-in, or chat, or listen to stories.  It is time which creates relationships of trust, and sometimes the most creative ideas on how to improve how the team is working start as such casual conversations.

Take time to teach your coworkers the soft skills they will need in their legal career.

If something strikes you as silly, circulate it. 

My masterpiece, “Social Justice Still Life.”

Encourage creativity

One day I bought about $100 worth of Play-Doh, invited people to take some away and bring back their creation to be displayed.

I had Zen sand gardens and an interesting collection of scientific toys which intrigued people of all ages.

Science is fun: Ribbon kept aloft by static electricity

 Everyone’s favorite was a levitating cup which held Hershey’s Kisses, and the object was to grab a candy without knocking the cup out of orbit.  Someone once left it in this precarious position, I took a video of it to circulated it to my team with the caption, “My level of enthusiasm today – barely defying gravity!”

Work on office life techniques, such as survival skills during all-day conference calls.

Bring nature in to the office. In honor of my principle that caring for my team is like organic gardening, whenever I found a discarded orchid in the trash I would nurse it back to splendor.

Note the avocado tree grown from a seed on the left.  Ignore the hooligans on the right.

And finally, I bought magnets for people to build things.  There was a warning that they were not to be eaten, so that put a damper on creativity.

As you can see, as you following Rule #2, “It’s ONLY about you” can be a lot of fun.

Coming attractions: Leader 8: The most important skill a leader uses is listening.  When a leader listens to a team member, and that team member feels heard, and supported without being judged, that team member trust the leader.  Listening is the golden key that opens the door to human relationship.

Where we have been in this quest for good leadership, and the road ahead:

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.

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