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Thoughts on Leadership

Byron P. Decoteau Jr., MSHLD, PHR., SHRM-CP
Director
Louisiana State Civil Service

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A Leader?

I never intentionally set out to be a leader. As a child, I recall being an introvert who found solace in being left to my own imagination. Leadership, in my opinion, was reserved for extraordinary individuals. I for one, never viewed myself as extraordinary.

Let me take you back to my childhood for a brief moment. I vividly remember a small keepsake book titled “My School Years”. The book contained pages dedicated to each year of elementary school. The main highlight was capturing the journey from kindergarten to eighth grade through a series of awkward yearbook photos, but that’s not the point for taking you down memory lane. What I find interesting is the fact that listed under the question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I consistently listed a school bus driver until the fourth grade. Fortunately for those traveling the streets of Louisiana, that aspiration did not come to fruition. However, it ironically plays a big part in my career as I will explain later.

Through a number of positions I have held in my career, I have had the opportunity to manage others. Managing others provided me with the realization that leadership is not necessarily limited to the extraordinary.

My early opportunities at leadership were carried out through the theory of transactional leadership. Focusing on the exchange between myself and my subordinates, I found satisfaction in setting expectations and offering extrinsic rewards that allowed my subordinates to fulfill their own self-interest. Conversely, in my current position, I strive to achieve a level of transformational leadership whereby the individuals within my organization go above their self-interest for the sake of the organization. I suggest that leadership requires leaders to operate with a balance between both styles of leadership.

Leading others requires a great deal of time and flexibility. I attempt to approach each day with enthusiasm and optimism in the hope that others will emulate such behaviors. But in all honesty, it doesn’t always go as planned. At the risk of showing my age, I liken each workday to a toy jack-in-the-box. As the handle of the day turns, it begins with delightful music that provides great enthusiasm and the will to inspire. However, as the handle continues to turn, that creepy jester pops up out of the box when you least expect it in the form of conflict and challenges! Additionally, I have not experienced a time when everyone willfully follows the leader. Sometimes they are more concerned about what’s best for them rather than what’s best for the organization. The key is discovering how to leverage the skills and competencies of everyone on the team to further the mission of the organization. Yes, including those who are only looking out for themselves!

While I certainly have not reached a level of extraordinary, I do believe I have reached a point in my career where I consider myself an effective leader. I attribute my personal leadership style to a few key mentors I have had the opportunity to serve. In addition, I understand my purpose and I am fortunate enough to hold a position that is in alignment with my purpose. Lastly, I surround myself with individuals who are far more astute and clever than myself.

Growing Through Mentors

Leaders need the opportunity to continually learn new skills and knowledge. Education, formal training and on-the-job experience all contribute to growing a leader’s capabilities. But today, the fast pace of changes in the workforce, the lack of funding for training and continued education can be disruptive to the development path.

Organizations can help accelerate learning opportunities by identifying mentors who are willing to share and demonstrate their competencies with others. Mentoring opportunities can exist within and outside of organizations. I would advise anyone who is interested in developing their career to seek out mentors. Don’t wait for your organization to develop a mentoring program or formally assign you to work with other individuals. In my experience, leaders often find fulfillment in mentoring. You just have to step out there and ask.

Along the path of my professional development, I found that the best mentoring opportunities came through observation. I observed how my mentors managed, made decisions and communicated. I would devote time to examine how I would have acted if I were in their positions. Of greater importance to me was observing how other individuals in the organization responded to the actions of my mentors. Observing other people’s reactions prepared my future-self to anticipate potential reactions to decisions I would one day have to make. This has been especially beneficial in communicating change. Before I initiate change, I prepare myself with responses for differing reactions and opinions. No classroom training could compare to the valuable lessons I learned from observing my mentors.

As I recall those experiences, I would suggest that the highest competency each mentor held was authenticity. They were great leaders but they also possessed a unique characteristic not often associated with leaders. They were not afraid to let me see them fail. They shared their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. They did not hide behind a veil of perfection. They were imperfect; they were real. I have obtained many mentors over my career. I still have many today; a few currently serving under my supervision who don’t even know I consider them a mentor.

Understanding Your Why

Simon Sinek, British author, marketing consultant and motivational speaker talks at great lengths about how successful organizations clearly define their “WHY”. He suggests that when individuals think, act and communicate their “WHY”, they inspire others. I try to consistently communicate our organization’s “WHY” and ensure a connection to our overall mission. Applying Sinek’s concept, this requires ensuring everyone in my organization seeks out why they do what they do. Understanding the “WHY” can help provide greater job fulfillment. In Louisiana’s state civil service system we are grounded in our founding principles of merit; yet we understand that we have to adapt to the overall demands and needs of our workforce. As an organization, we collectively established our “WHY”. We believe that citizens of Louisiana are entitled to the highest quality of service from state government. Combining our “WHY” with our founding principles of merit, we aspire to set the standard of excellence in providing strategic state government workforce solutions.

My personal “WHY” has often changed over time; however, I hold a core “WHY” that has remained constant for two decades. When I entered the workforce, I was quickly dismayed to learn that a job in state government was not necessarily viewed as a noble profession. I recall a joke I heard once among friends.

“A state employee was sitting at his desk with nothing to do, he opened his filing cabinet and discovered a golden lamp. As he rubbed the lamp a genie appeared. The genie granted the state employee three wishes. His first wish was for a cold beer, the second was to be lying on a tropical island. Enjoying the sunlight on the island and drinking his beer, he pondered his third wish. He told the genie that his last wish was to never have to work again, and within an instant, he appeared back at his desk in his state government job. The genie responded with, your wish has been granted.” Thus, indicating that holding a state job was likened to an island vacation.

Most state employees have experienced this stereotype. For a time, comments like these left me feeling devalued and disconnected. I have long ago abandoned this dismayed feeling and adopted an attitude to change the perception of the state government’s workforce one day at a time. At the onset of my human resources career, something resonated with my young introverted personality. For the first time, I believed that I had something to offer. I found my purpose. I was led here to serve and bring forth a positive perception of our workforce. I am proud to be a public servant.

Discovering Your People

So here rests the irony in my childhood aspiration to become a bus driver. “The right people in the right seats on the bus,” is a metaphor many human resources professionals have heard at least once during the course of their career. This is a popular metaphor from author Jim Collins’ best-seller “Good to Great”.

As written by Collins, great leaders begin first with Who, then What. In his concept, those who build great organizations first get the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figure out where to drive it. I grasped onto this concept quickly. Collins’ concept illustrated that we cannot predict what’s coming around the corner, so our best strategy is to have a busload of people who can adapt and perform brilliantly no matter what comes next. I have learned that I cannot bring forth great vision and change without the support of great people.

I have discovered that perhaps my aspirations of becoming a bus driver have in some sense come true. I drive a large organization. The seats on my bus all have a unique and important role. I assign everyone a seat. I ensure the bus adheres to the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule. I make sure the appearance of the bus is spotless and clean. I obtain directions ahead of time and ensure we arrive promptly at our destination. All is perfect. The reality, all is not perfect!

No matter how polished the bus is, it will always require maintenance. Maintenance is not always accepted by the passengers. Passengers don’t always get along; however, I am here to tell you that your bus can operate smoothly with passengers who frankly may not like one another. As the driver, it is your job to use a little emotional intelligence to get the best out of each passenger. With hard work and dedication, you just might have every passenger singing the same song on the way to your destination. You will of course always have a passenger or two that will be off key, but that’s what makes the ride enjoyable.

My overall advice is to adhere to the maintenance. Don’t get complacent. People will leave the bus and that is a good thing! Vacant seats represent opportunities. As the workforce changes, you can probably expect to stop for passengers more often. Fill your seats with individuals who want to take your job as the driver. Never allow yourself to get to a place where you feel indispensable because the fact is we can all be kicked off the bus at any time. Don’t be afraid to let others drive the bus. Like your insurance company, some people will probably tell you that’s not the best idea. Take that risk. Let others drive and shine. You will be surprised how much you might learn from them.

Close With Creditability

My mentors, my team and my purpose have all served me well. They provided for a strong foundation. As I move forward on the leadership path, I lead knowing that there will come a time when my opportunities will come to a close. My goal for when that time comes is to be able to say that I closed with strong creditability. I submit that all leaders should aspire for a similar close. My advice:

  1. Demonstrate Humility – Don't risk your reputation by seeking recognition for your own personal success. You will risk demotivating your team and your own reputation.
  2. Demonstrate Empathy – Learn to put yourself in the place of others and understand all perspectives prior to making a decision. 
  3. Demonstrate Strategic Risks –Invest time in identifying threats and opportunities. Take strategic risks to bring forth innovation and transformations.
  4. Demonstrate Ownership – Own your decisions. Share the successes and losses; each provides an opportunity for growth. 
  5. Have Fun - My team members know I expect them to work hard and play hard. Who says you can’t have the best of both worlds?

 This Leadership Project is sponsored by Infor.