I always thought I’d love being a leader, until I was one. I was catching up with my boss over coffee, listening intently while she outlined the new organizational structure. My ears really perked up when she casually said I would now be Spencer’s manager. I immediately agreed with excitement. What an opportunity! It wasn’t until I left the meeting that it really sank in. How was I going to manage Spencer, who was a close friend and co-worker? We had always been equal. We had always been counter-parts.
It was a rough and awkward start. I walked an uncomfortable line, stepping back and forth between friend and leader. I constantly relied on my own manager for tips and direction. I practically did everything she told me to do, but I still felt that I was failing at being a manager. As the year went on, it was time for mid-year performance reviews. I wanted to give constructive feedback to truly help Spencer succeed and reach his career goals.
I thought through how the discussion would go, and decided it would feel more natural and relaxed if we had our meeting outside in the nice weather. We sat on a bench, and I looked at Spencer as the sun blinded him. He put on his sunglasses. Immediately the existing wall between us grew taller. As I nervously went through each step of the performance review, just as my manager instructed me, it hit me. All this time, I was listening to someone else and ignored my instincts. I lost myself while trying to be the perfect boss and it was like I became a corporate robot. I was so wrapped up in doing everything right, I was doing everything wrong.
In that moment, I let my guard down with Spencer, and I expressed how weird it had been being his new boss and that I was trying my best. He finally seemed to respond to me. He took off his glasses, and I saw tears well up in his eyes. He was clearly just as frustrated as I was. It had been months since we had a real, true conversation.
Forget the corporate structures, the systems, the requirements. I learned an important lesson that day; I learned that no one can tell you how to lead. Yes, you can read books, try new tips, take a class, but it is up to you to find your authenticity, and to use it to lead and inspire others.
Lita Madlang is a senior communications advisor for Rio Tinto, a global mining company. She is a writer and outdoor enthusiast from Salt Lake City, Utah. Lita has a BA in Mass Communications and is pursuing an Executive MS in Strategic Communications from Columbia University.