I was talking with a colleague recently about a big project I am leading at work. It’s the single biggest assignment I’ve had in some time, and I was giving him an update on our weekly progress. His response caught me off guard.
“Wow Dan, I’m really impressed with how you’ve pulled this off so far,” he said. “Your leadership has been exemplary.”
I should be proud that someone recognized my mastery in the art of leadership, right? Instead, I had trouble seeing what he was talking about, or what exactly I was doing that warranted his praise. I can’t remember a time when a compliment has left me feeling so unworthy.
At its essence, this project involves redesigning an outdated training program for customer service applications - not only adding technical updates, but also a bit of a facelift. The workload is huge and the timelines are tight. And among all of the people lined up to contribute to the project, I’m the guy right in the middle.
On one side I have a team of developers who know very little about the applications we’re working with. They’re counting on me to deliver source materials so they can create content that looks good and teaches effectively.
On the other side is a team of subject matter experts (SME’s) who have the knowledge we need to develop the program. They are also the end users who will be training with the materials.
To pull off the project on-time and within budget, we all needed to do some serious hustling. But it also required effective leadership skills to make all the pieces click - at least that’s what they tell me.
But even recognizing the need for great leadership, my approach had been to take more of a serving role.
For the development team, I responded quickly to their requests for information, even anticipating their questions and delivering answers before they asked. My goal was to provide everything they needed to put together an absolutely stellar training program. If I was successful in this, then they would get more work from us.
For the SME team, I wanted to make sure that we were meeting their training needs. That meant ensuring that the development team was clear and concise in their content development. The end product has to be valuable to the SME team, or the project will fail.
In all of my hustling to help everyone else look good and find value, I thought of myself more as a servant than anything else. My job was to deliver through a large amount of grunt-work so that others can shine.
“It’s funny that what I consider serving is perceived by others as leading,” I said to my coworker that day as we discussed the similarities and differences of the two.
He admitted that he had never thought of leadership in that way before, but then saw how it made perfect sense that by helping others achieve their goals, you not only serve them, but also end up leading them.
We both walked away from the conversation resolving to be better servants in our jobs.