Lessons Learned from Messy Leadership

by  Susan Mazza  |  Leadership Development

In a meeting to review a proposal over 20 years ago, I (as the youngest and by far the lowest level person in the room) spoke up about a concern I had about the proposal.

I quickly found myself cleaning up the mess created in my relationship with my boss. Whether it was leadership or insubordination was a matter of interpretation, as I explain here.

Looking through the lens of 25 more years of experience, I can see there was a lot to learn. If I could go back in time and give myself some advice, here is what I would say:

1.  Decisions are Not Made Based on Facts Alone; They are Influenced by Relationships.

I had missed the significance of the rift between the organizations involved and the leaders of those organizations. Until then, I had written off the breakdowns in relationship between my boss and the CIO as a personality clash, instead of understanding the stories that had gotten them (and their organizations) both so dug into their “us” vs. “them” camps.

It is important to understand both the facts and the relationships if you want to provide the leadership essential to making the best possible decisions. When you understand the story from both sides you are be better equipped to facilitate a more effective working relationship between the two organizations.

2.  Wherever You Are, Know Why You Are There.

I had made a lot of assumptions about why I was attending this meeting, based on my experience in my previous job. None of them matched why my boss invited me or what the purpose of this meeting actually was from his point of view. It was a big mistake to assume things were done here the way they were done “there.”  For my boss, this meeting was supposed to be a formality. I may still have chosen to risk speaking up, but there was no excuse for me to not be aware of why I was there and be awake to the risk and potential consequences.

3.  Understanding the Culture is Important to Being Effective

Whether I had committed an act of leadership or insubordination is a matter of interpretation that depends on the culture of the organization. In a command-and-control environment, the interpretation that I had stepped out of line was likely. In that kind of culture, the expectation is typically that you defer to your boss and never question them publicly, if at all.

In a collaborative culture, if I was invited to a meeting I would have been expected to speak up. Of course, reality is never quite so black and white. Despite the culture, individuals can lean one way or the other, so it is also important to understand the belief system of the people to whom you are accountable.

Ultimately I left the company because the culture was not a fit for me. We made it work while I was there. My boss and I found a way to repair our relationship. There were some truly fantastic people at this company and we accomplished much together. It was these pockets of collaboration that kept me going, but it quickly became clear to me my future was not there.

Image credit: alphaspirit / 123RF Stock Photo


What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By susan-mazza
Susan Mazza works with leaders and their organizations to transform their performance from solid to exceptional as a business consultant, leadership coach and motivational speaker. CEO of Clarus-WORKS, Founder/Author of Random Acts of Leadership™, and Co-Author of The Character-Based Leader, Susan was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders by Trust Across America in 2013.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Linda Freeman  |  21 Oct 2013  |  Reply

Great points!

Mary C Schaefer  |  22 Oct 2013  |  Reply

What a great story, Susan. Those types of experiences leave us with invaluable lessons that last a lifetime. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Angela Goodeve  |  23 Oct 2013  |  Reply

It is great when we are able to reflect back on previous circumstances through the lens of experience. So true Susan that (perhaps unfortunately) we need to be aware of our environment, and the differences/relationships of the people around us, and adjust accordingly (hopefully whilst staying true to our authentic selves!!).

Peace and Love,

Ang :-)

Chery Gegelman  |  28 Oct 2013  |  Reply

WONDRFUL post Susan!

I’ve underestimated the exact same thing in the past and wish too that I could go back with the knowledge I have today. Not to wallow in what I didn’t know, but to see how much I’ve learned would help to change the outcome. (Have they invented time machines yet?)

Join The Conversation