Large and In Charge: Being a Leader Worth Following

by Donna Lee Schillinger
Love and faithfulness keep a leader safe; through love her authority is made secure. Proverbs 20:28

Have you ever held a supervisory position? Even if you haven’t, I bet you know a lot about being a good supervisor. Your whole life has been under constant supervision – parents, teachers, pastors, youth leaders, work supervisors and even the police. Have you thought about what it is that causes you to like and respect some authority figures and dislike others?

Being “cool” and having a good sense of humor help to make parents, teachers and work supervisors likable, but if you also respect those persons it is probably because they are really good at their job and they treat you with respect.

Anyone can be assigned a position of authority, or in the case of a parent, obtain it through childbirth, but it’s something different to actually have authority. You’ve been looking at this issue from the subordinate side, but soon, if you haven’t already, you will be in authority over others. Before you get there, you should make some promises to yourself about what kind of authority figure you’ll be. Don’t you owe it to yourself to be the kind of person you admire? You don’t want to end up as one of those bosses people are mocking in the break room, do you?

Especially if you’re on the college track, you may eventually find yourself in a position of authority over someone older and much more experienced than you. Imagine being supervised by a 12-year-old. Seems absurd, doesn’t it? But that must come close to the bewilderment a 45-year old feels at taking direction from a 22-year old. Even if age isn’t a factor, taking direction from a new supervisor must feel akin to taking driving instruction from a British teenager who just got her driver’s license a month ago and has never actually driven on American roads. What can she possibly know about it?

Besides young age and inexperience, there may be other unknown obstacles to being accepted as a new supervisor. Maybe everyone really liked the former supervisor and still feels quite loyal to that person. Maybe the people you are supervising were vying for the job you just got and were passed over because they don’t have the necessary education. Maybe the company you work for really bites and people can’t stand their jobs! Even in the best case scenario, as a new supervisor, you are likely to meet with initial resistance.

In almost every job I’ve held since my sophomore year of college, I’ve been in a position of authority over at least a couple of people and usually someone older than me. I didn’t go in expecting resistance from my employees, and at times I was largely oblivious to it, but it was there. I know this because time and time again, my employees confessed to me later on that when I first came on the job, they didn’t like me. Was it me? I’d like to think it’s that people don’t like change and a new boss represents change.

That’s not to say that I’ve always been the ideal boss. Through trial and error (emphasis on the error), I’ve learned a few things about being in the position of authority. I have a few suggestions I hope you’ll keep in mind when you get your first position of authority.

  1. Avoid instituting change within the first month of your new job – and if you have the flexibility to wait longer, wait at least three months. There are two main reasons for this. First, change is what your employees most fear  and for you to begin to institute change immediately, you confirm their  worst fear and they will likely resist the changes, even if they are good ones. Second, how can you change for the better something you really don’t understand? You may have been told in an interview what needs to change, but if you have the liberty, take the first months on the job to learn how everything is done and to understand the rationale behind it. The real reason employees do what they do could be hard to articulate and may need to be experienced. Try working one or more shifts (or days) in the capacity of the position you think needs change. You can learn a lot about rationale by walking in someone else’s shoes.
  2. Expect  the best out of your employees. Even if you feel their resentment, don’t acknowledge it. I recall once holding a staff meeting and having to dish out some hard pills to swallow. At the end of the meeting, I tried to make light of the situation and said something like, “Okay, I’m leaving now so you can talk bad about me.” Later, I learned that my parting remark had incited more discontent than any of the meeting’s agenda items. These conscientious employees were insulted by my assumption that they were nasty backbiters. Such a misunderstanding! If only I had left the meeting with this remark: “Thanks for your time and I know that you will all do your best to implement these practices, because I’ve come to expect only the best from you.”
  3. Last on this short list, but certainly not least, is to respect what you don’t know about your employees. When you come on the job as the new supervisor, you’ll be acutely aware that your employees have no idea how capable you are and you will look forward to them discovering it as time goes by. Well, guess what, they are highly capable too. If you’re supervising a 45-year-old, you’re in charge of a person who has lived more than twice  the life you have. Don’t you think that person has accumulated some valuable knowledge and understanding in that other lifetime?

Just as we should in every interaction with friends, family and total strangers, we must take mutual respect to the workplace. Your respect of others will garner their respect for you.

People don’t respect you for your title or what you can do to them if they are insubordinate. If they care about their job, they have to revere the position, but they don’t have to respect the person in it. They can fully comply with all directives and still resent the heck out of you. The operation may run like clockwork, but you’ll be able to cut the hostility in the air with a knife.

Make the air easier to breathe with the only tool that really works to neutralize hostility, resentment and resistance to authority. Shower the people under you with respect. That doesn’t mean you need to bring donuts every morning. People can tell the difference between gifts and respect. Respect is a feeling and a knowledge that you relate to each other as people first and supervisor/employee second. It is the natural outcome of a relationship based in Christ’s love. And like any other relationship, it takes time to develop.

The Message puts it this way: “The mark of a good leader is loyal followers; leadership is nothing without a following” (Proverbs 20:28).

Hold this thought: My employees will respect me because I respect them.

Donna Lee Schillinger is editor of the recent anthology Purity’s Big Payoff/Premarital Sex is a Big Rip-off, winner of the 2012 Christian Small Publisher’s Book of the Year. In 2008 she founded On My Own Now Ministries to encourage faith, wise life choices and Christ-likeness in young adults. On My Own Now publishes the free, monthly online magazines, Single! Young Christian Woman and Genuine Motivation: Young Christian Man.

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