Recently I came across a quote that really resonated with me.
‘Many people spend too much time trying to be the captain of somebody else’s boat. Learn to be a lighthouse, and the boats will find their way‘
I’m not sure who wrote it, or what their hope had been in it’s meaning, but to me this speaks a lot about being a leader. My Father will tell you that he picked me as a natural born leader from the age of three as I rounded up all the kids in the church we used to go to, to accompany me to kids church with the promise of juice and a biscuit. He’ll tell you I at the age of five, I commandeered the playground and gave every child in my pre-school class a role to play in my ‘family’ game. And at the age of thirteen, I led almost an entire high-school class down to detention in a ‘oh captain, my captain!‘ moment as a strike against the mis-justice of one of my friends (not that I condone my adolescent behaviour in this circumstance particularly).
But whether I am a good leader or not, in adulthood, things aren’t exactly straight forward and there are now more complex emotions to deal with. The first time I had to deal with this was the day I became a Supervisor at one of the restaurants I was working at when I was 19 years old. There was one lady there who had worked there for a few years before I had joined the team, and at the point of which I was placed in charge, she refused obtusely to take any orders from me.
And I understood it, I really did. Who was I to have just walked in to her world, and suddenly be given the power to make decisions about what she did or how she did it. She was older than me, and I was barely out of school. I got it. It wasn’t fair. But I also hadn’t appointed myself in that role. My boss had, and whether she liked it or not, there wasn’t much either of us could do about it.
Working with this lady taught me a lot about what it means to be a leader, and in particular, how to be humble in the role. And I will always be grateful to her for putting me through the hardship, because it has been invaluable in every leadership role I undertook from that moment onwards. It wasn’t just about me being in charge, or directing people to do things, it was about harnessing the knowledge and skills of my colleagues to bring about success. It taught me a lot about finding the balance between making orders, and incorporating my colleagues in decision processes.
You see, I don’t think leadership necessarily means the same as dictatorship. And when you work in a team especially, you want to bring everyones talents and best attributes to the table. That’s how you attain cohesiveness, and that’s how you attain respect. You let your team know their value, their integral role in whatever it is that you’re trying to achieve. Because you’re not a leader, if there’s no one to follow – and they won’t follow, if they feel stripped of their importance.
As a Clinical Nurse at work, I am given the responsibility to lead a team of nurses throughout each shift I work. And in almost the same ways as it was in hospitality, it didn’t start out as being easy.
I made it to Clinical Nurse quite young in my career as a nurse, which didn’t sit well with many. Having had less time out on the floor seemed to have more bearing over my perceived ability to fill the role that I expected. It didn’t matter that I had studied an additional degree, nor the hard work or overtime I had put in. The bottom line was that they didn’t think I deserved the promotion.
There were days I would be in charge, and my colleagues would deliberately with-hold important information from me so that at handover, I would appear to have a little insight to the actual condition of patients. It was dangerous, and frustrating.
I would hear about unkind words said about me behind my back, and it didn’t seem to matter what I did, it didn’t change their opinion. For the nurses that had worked there far longer than me, it didn’t seem fair – and there was not much I could do to change the hurt they felt that it hadn’t been them instead.
The only thing I could give them was someone who repeatedly displayed a gratitude to them for their own role and expertise in caring for patients, who showed a residence against the unkind words and actions, and who gave them an option to be recognised as an integral member of the team. My favourite thing to do was to ask simply ‘How can I help you?’, because I wanted know how could encourage them to take the lead and achieve greatness in their own shift. I wanted them to see that while I was their leader per say, it didn’t mean I had taken their autonomy in being their own nurse, nor undervalued their gained knowledge in the years preceding me. It took time. But the ones who couldn’t move past the hurt left, and the ones who could eventually found a way to respect it.
And I think that’s what the quote means. It’s not about trying to dictate how my team should work or how they should do something, it’s not about being the captain of their boat. Its about being the example, and the navigator to a shift in turmoil. Finding ways to problem solve, advocate and uplift the team. Being the lighthouse and safe home for the boats.
And I love that as an analogy for being a leader.
I’m not yet the perfect leader, and I won’t proclaim to be, but I do know that when power is placed in your hands, you should feel obligated to utilise it for the better. Be a lighthouse.