In Leadership
T

here’s a video on the internet that I repeatedly encounter. It’s accompanied by commentary that indicates a severe misunderstanding of what good leadership looks like. Well, trolls don’t know leadership. Do you?

High School Don’t Know Leadership

Every time I see the video and its attendant misunderstanding of leadership, I am reminded of Mrs. Kershman who taught me writing in my sophomore and senior years in high school. When I first walked into her classroom, she took one look at my binder with papers sticking out all over the place and the stack of books sliding out of my grasp. She said, “You’re discombobulated. Leave my room, and don’t come back until you’ve gotten yourself together.” At the time, that didn’t seem fair. So what if my papers were scattered? So what if I was trying to carry too many books in my arms? And what the hell did “discombobulated” mean?

Mrs. Kershman didn’t abide any non-sense. Not from me, and not from any of my classmates. She called me out on a lot of non-sense over the course of two years. She called me out when I was disorganized, called me out when I was distracted or distracting in class. And, she called me out when I hadn’t put my best effort into my work.

Leadership Doesn’t Always Make Friends

I don’t remember any peers who held a neutral view of Mrs. Kershman. I came to love her pretty quickly. Some of my peers shared my affection and gratitude. Some, however, never liked her. In fact, they had very unflattering things to say about her. But she recognized potential in me most of my other teachers had overlooked. I can’t overestimate how much that has meant.

She expected a lot. When I scored a four on the AP English Comp exam (a score I was proud of), she said, “Congratulations. You could have gotten a five.” She was right. I hadn’t really studied.

Why did some of us love her? We loved her because she was honest, and she was generous with her knowledge, her insight, and her high expectations for our performance. She was fair. She doled out kudos when she saw commendable work, and criticism when she saw flawed work. Mrs. Kershman made me into a good writer. We loved her because she loved us. She loved us enough to be matter of fact and unemotional about our work — good or bad.

Mr. Moser, my directing professor in college, same story. Same with Mr. Peirson who taught studio art. Many of my peers disparaged them as well. I liked them at once and remain grateful for their high expectations and unemotional feedback. When their praise did come, it meant a great deal.

Some Colleagues Don’t Know Leadership

Later, as a part of the workforce, I had a supervisor whom many of my coworkers regularly disparaged as well. They had unflattering things to say about her. At first, I didn’t see what they disliked in her. She evaluated me fairly. She criticized my weaknesses and praised my good work. I challenged my peers’ mistrust of her. It seemed many of them believed she was trying to aggrandize herself by critiquing their work. One peer said, “no one’s had those complaints about my work before. It’s B.S.” It became clear that what my colleagues disliked in our supervisor was that she demanded excellence, and didn’t pet us.

I received her criticism as she delivered it, without emotion. She came to trust me (as I did her) and often sought my counsel. As our relationship continued, she told me more than once that she viewed me as a mentor in leadership and management. She had less experience leading and managing people than I did. Even as she called me a mentor, she continued to critique my work.

This was not the behavior of a self-aggrandizing power monger — to refer to a direct report as a mentor. This was the behavior of someone who loves good work, someone who knows that wisdom can flow in both directions without the loss of authority, someone who values growth over role power. My peers it seems had never learned what strong leadership looks like. Indeed, there were not many strong leaders in that particular organization. She was a diamond in the rough. My peers suffered from career histories without really having any oversight. They’d never cultivated a hunger for honest criticism as I had.

I feel truly fortunate to have had many strong leaders in my life. I am fortunate to have been raised and taught to recognize them. That’s allowed me to continue learning from great leaders, and to grow through their input.

Internet Troll Don’t Know Leadership

And so, I’m back to that video I named at the top. It’s a clip from Britain’s Got Talent. At the very start of a young boy’s audition, Simon Cowell interrupts the song. He says to the boy (Shaheen Jafagholi), “You’ve got this really wrong,” and asks him if he’s got any other songs that he can sing. Much of the internet lambasts Simon for this. It says he has “embarrassed” or “humiliated” Shaheen. Because of this and other no-holds-barred critiques that Simon has leveled at people on tv, the internet calls him cruel, and harsh, and mean.

In the case of Shaheen and his interrupted audition, I find Simon both generous and compassionate. The audition was not going well. Simon had the compassion and generosity to stop it before he embarrassed himself, or worse, failed in his audition attempt. Simon didn’t just stop the audition. He helped Shaheen to change its direction by singing a song that better highlighted his talents. Without Simon’s intervention, Shaheen would have fallen short and failed to progress in the competition.

With the second song, Shaheen crushed it. Simon saved his audition. He got a standing ovation. He didn’t look humiliated to me. (The internet also says that Shaheen humiliated Simon. Balogna. The two of them collaborated to deliver a stellar performance that wouldn’t have happened without their combined talents. Simon saw the talent beneath the bad audition, and he wanted to see it in full bloom.)

Start watching at 0:50

Simon, contrary to popular opinion, is a remarkable leader who can teach the internet a thing or two.

Three Leadership Lessons from Simon

One lesson is in the Shaheen video above:

1. Look for greatness. Insist on greatness. Waste no time in playing around with mediocrity when greatness is within reach. Mrs. Kershman would approve.

Simon’s second lesson in leadership is also grossly misunderstood by the internet. He demonstrates this lesson when he interrupts another audition, saying, “I can’t listen to that,” and suggesting she choose another song, “a better song. What else have you got?”

Start watching at 0:45

Simon’s fellow judges do not approve of his having interrupted Jodi Bird. They tell him so. And then Jodi begins her song again. Same song she started with. She sings her heart out. The crowd goes wild, and her father shouts, “Take that, Simon!” Simon’s response, “Yeah. I may have acted a little bit prematurely there.” He adds briefly, “I’m not crazy about [show tunes],” and immediately proceeds to say, “I did cut you off too short. And I apologize.”

Second Leader’s Lesson:

2. Leaders make errors. They’re open to recognizing the fact. They acknowledge it easily and quickly. And if there’s any chance they’ve stepped on someone’s toes, they readily apologize.

Turns out, Simon interrupts people often. In this third video, he interrupts Hope Murphy as soon as he recognizes the song.

Start watching at 2:10

Simon’s brain was impaired when it came to this song. He’d heard it too often, from too many auditioners and he was sick of it. The internet doesn’t like that Simon’s rejected yet another person’s song choice. “He’s trying to throw her off,” says one commenter. In truth, he’s self-aware enough to recognize that he’s now got a bias against that song. He doesn’t know whether Hope has talent, but he does know that if she sings the song she’s chosen, he won’t give her a fair shake. Watching and evaluating auditions is exhausting. He’s already seen many, many people. And, he wants to be sure to give Hope her fair shake.

Third Leader’s Lesson:

3. Know thyself. Compensate for your weaknesses and blind-spots — whether permanent or temporary — by creating systems and fail-safes to catch you.

The internet is full of bad lessons in leadership. Some people think good leadership is either soft and fluffy or leaves you to your own devices. Nope.

Leadership isn’t soft. It’s loving. It reflects the truth back to you, instead of shielding you from reality and preventing your growth. Leadership expects more from you than you think you have to give. It looks beneath the surface to see potential and encourages that potential to be realized. Sometimes it’s tough. It doesn’t agree with your self-limiting ideas. If you’re available and open to it, you expand your capability and shine in its presence.

Recognize Leadership: Leadership Sees You

Take a moment to reflect. How are you doing with respect to these measures of leadership? Are you kindly demanding excellence? Or are you weakly permitting mediocrity? How are you responding to strong leadership? Are you gratefully asking more of yourself in response? Or are you disparaging of others who want to see you grow to meet your potential?

Thank a great leader in your life today. Share your experiences of great leaders with me. I love to hear those stories.

Aaron Schmookler
Aaron Schmookler is Co-Founder and Trainer at The Yes Works, dedicated to helping companies create and maintain a culture of communication, collaboration, and innovation through improv training dynamically correlated to the real work of real teams. Improv: The competitive advantage you’ve been looking for.
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