Lessons Learned


I was chatting with John Kottcamp the other day about leading and coaching people. I was reminded of a mentor of mine named Mike Winn. Like they say, “the difference between people is the books they’ve read and the people they’ve met”. Over the course of my life, many people have given me good advice, at times I embraced it vigorously, other times it was challenging for me to understand the relevance.  
The nice thing about having mentors is that they influence the rest of your life. In particular with Mike, some 40 years later his advice is still having a big impact on me.  
When I was 14 years old, I decided I’d visit the local church. I had never been there before, and I was by myself. Being new to church, when the pastor asked us to read out loud a specific verse from the bible, I was completely lost. I was fumbling through the book trying to find the chapter he had referenced, feeling a bit awkward, to say the least. Mike happened to be sitting next to me with his family. Realizing that I was struggling, he helped me get to the right book and verse so I could follow along.  
Mike and I struck up a relationship. Turned out he was an elder in the church and an English Literature professor. He had recently returned to the States after running large refugee camps in Cambodia and Laos. After the Vietnam war, there was a refugee crisis and he took a sabbatical from teaching to helping organize and run these camps. I spent a lot of time with Mike over the next couple of years until he moved to take a tenured teaching position at a UC school in Northern California.  
Mike was always feeding me books to read, mostly science and fantasy fiction novels. Those types of books turned out to be a great forum for he and I to talk about life lessons, including leadership lessons. Mike had a lot of stories about his time running refugee camps and did his best to impart his wisdom to me. We had a Socratic relationship. 
One day, I asked Mike “What is the hardest thing about leadership”? He said, “letting people fail”. Of course, I wanted to dive into this subject, and he explained that people learn more from their failures than from their successes and sometimes you have to step back and let them work things through. Even when, as the leader, it’s easier to just do it yourself, Mike counseled that you need to give people the opportunity to grow and learn. His point was a great leader “knows just the right time to step in and help verse step back and allow people to struggle”.  
When I received this advice, I was probably 16 years old and it was inconceivable to me that you could responsibly let someone fail. We discussed the subject for a while and then moved on. It sat with me as an important lesson but just one that didn’t quite make sense at the time.  
As I moved into my career and took increasingly larger leadership roles, the wisdom of Mike’s perspective became clearer to me. As a manager of a small or medium size team, you can kill yourself, micromanage every detail and generally be successful. As you run larger teams or lead people who lead teams this becomes an impossible task. Ultimately people need to be coached and they want to learn, the balance is finding the right blend of attention to detail, so you can protect the business and give your people space and time to fail. In retrospect, Mike was absolutely right … to know when to stand by and allow someone to fail but is engaged enough so that you can coach them is the secret to great leadership. So, if you find yourself wanting to jump into the orchestra pit and start playing someone else’s instrument, consider taking a moment of pause and consider if there is an opportunity for leadership and coaching.  
Let’s go be great!