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Letters to a Young Manager

Crossing the Street, #289
LTYM > Leadership and Values

Dear Adam,
As you think about leadership, the natural first image is to think about being in front, ahead of the pack, encouraging others to follow. A friend who teaches part-time at a prestigious law school says you need to keep two steps ahead of the students, no more and no less. And it's this memory of the teachers and coaches in our life that sets our early benchmark for leading. But it may not be the image that serves you best.

Last summer I traveled to Cairo to be a judge in the Imagine Cup student competition. While we were there, we made plans to meet with a colleague who offered to show us his home country, the "real" Egypt he said. Farouk was one of our long-term Field Office Regional Tech's. He reported up through my US headquarters IT group.

As is the custom of his country, Farouk extended a hospitality that is rare in my part of the world. He took us on a tour of the old city in Cairo, we visited the Egyptian Museum, and we traveled to Alexandria. He made all the arrangements and would take no more than our thanks in return. It was humbling.

The traffic in Cairo is, by western standards, insane. There are few traffic lights in the city, and no one pays any attention to them. The painted lines on the street and highways are at best guidelines; if four cars can fit in three lanes, they do. One evening in Cairo we parked near the edge of the old city and walked to dinner. At the first main street, we experienced the drivers of Egypt, up close and personal. How were we ever going to cross this street? My New York instincts were to look for a gap in the traffic, and run for it. But there were no gaps.

Though I was the boss, Farouk took charge. "Hold my hands," he said, "follow my lead, and don't look!" It was a strange experience, a throw-back to early childhood, grabbing Dad's hand before crossing the street; depending on him to get us safely across. "Go now," he said, taking five steps forward and stopping, then five more. Cars were swerving around us like a river around three rocks. "Hold on," he admonished, "do what I say; now go." In a dance I did not understand, he guided across the sea of chaos, to the other side.

When we caught our breath, and heart rates slowed down, I asked him how he got us across. In New York, we would have been killed. But these were Cairo rules. "When you step out," he said, "the drivers must take responsibility not to hit you." "...but you need to know when to step out," he added.

This story was a lesson I'll never forget, precisely because I needed to forget. I had to put aside my experience and preconceived notions of how to cross a busy street, and trust someone else to guide me through their country's rules. Letting others lead you and teach you is part of becoming a good leader. It is especially true of learning about other cultures--we will never get it as well as those who have it in their blood. This also applies to our areas of expertise. Sometimes we need to let others teach us.

Think about this as you have more responsibility for leading the people on your team. Ask yourself frequently what you can learn from them. And trust them to teach you.


Letting others take the lead means learning to be a good follower

Discussion Questions:

1) What are some things people on your team do better than you do?
2) What will you do to be a better follower?

For Further Reading:

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