A Lesson in Effective Leadership

This second article in a three-part series focuses on facing obstacles to leadership through self-reflection.

I think you should know this,” says my husband Giovanni. “I’ve just heard your staff referring to you as the ‘Dragon Lady.’ Think about it.” Those two words, “Dragon Lady,” exploded in my head like a detonated mine, scattering my thoughts and emotions in all directions. Who me? Me? I was their mentor, their employer, and I thought, their friend. My feelings ran the gamut from being hurt and offended to unbelieving. I certainly needed to think about it.

It was at this time that my staff and I were in the midst of organizing details for a large event. All of us, I thought, had been successfully collaborating on ideas and specifics, so this workforce revelation and judgment really shook my self-perception. I started to consider which of my behaviors or attitudes could have given rise to the harsh title.

The self-reflection was painful. Earlier in the day, one of my staff had been sharing an idea. This was one of my quieter employees, one who needed encouragement to contribute her ideas, which were usually well thought-out but hesitantly conveyed. I remembered impatiently grabbing a pen from her hand to sketch out and expand on her idea, as I thought she was taking too long to express herself. What happened was that she just stopped talking. Yet, were my ideas better than hers? Had I effectively taken over ownership of her ideas and silenced her contributions?

Another recent scene entered my mind. A newer employee was brought to tears, because she hadn’t done the background checks we needed. Did the problem lie with her? In truth, no. I hadn’t communicated exactly what we needed but had presumed, erroneously, that she would know. I hadn’t thoroughly considered what information she needed for her on-the-job training, nor had I delegated with clear instructions.

So here were two instances. In one, I had prioritized my ideas over supporting a staff member’s and was micromanaging rather than encouraging. In the second, I hadn’t enabled a different staff member to work effectively. Although I thought I was being a good mentor, I realized that I was focusing on the job at hand rather than enabling my staff to do their jobs. Enabling was my job. and I knew that I needed help in becoming an effective leader.

The Path to Meaningful Mentoring

Consciously, I began learning about effective leadership. One of the first things that became evident was that leadership isn’t about managing tasks. Rather, it involves empowering others so tasks are managed. I needed my staff to carry out the work at hand. My role was to empower them through five power-raising actions—modeling ethical behavior, inspiring, searching for improvement, enabling them to do their jobs, and encouraging and recognizing their efforts.

As a result of my own leadership research and changes, my role became that of a mentor, and there was a shift in perception for both my staff and myself. It became “our business” rather than “my business.” Our successes and reputation were dependent on how all of us did our jobs. In a broader context, our successes and reputation also reflected and supported our industry.

I spent a great deal of time considering the mentoring process. Individual strengths in our staff needed to be highlighted and recognized, while areas of weakness needed identification and support. As a leader, I needed to be more available and open to new ideas. So, we scheduled a series of meetings to follow up on ideas, tasks, and new learnings.

Overcoming Founderitis

Entrepreneurs often have difficulty in releasing power after establishing their business. I could relate. My company was my “baby.” I had envisioned it, established it, and grown it. I wanted to keep control of decision-making so that the business could reflect my vision. However, this didn’t empower my staff. We couldn’t grow if I had too much personal responsibility to work effectively.

There is a name for this studied phenomenon. It’s called “Founder’s Syndrome” or Founderitis. As a business grows, it becomes increasingly impossible for the founders to keep total power, influence, and decision-making. This causes a wide range of problems. For me, I decided to consciously release power and avoid micro-managing. Establishing a succession plan meant empowering my staff with education and experience to step into other roles as needed.

Slaying the “Dragon Lady”

“Think about it,” Giovanni had said. The way I have worked with my staff has changed considerably. Encouragement has made a huge difference. We started habitually recognizing and giving each other specific and timely credit for our accomplishments. Our work satisfaction and happiness increased. But there is another great benefit from this journey. I’ve come to recognize that tasks will always be there, but what is important is how am I with others. It is not the “doing” that is important, but the “being.” I’d like to think that the Dragon Lady has retreated into her den—never to be seen again.

What’s your story?

We all have a “Slaying the Dragon” story. These personal stories help us discern our own skills and abilities and become effective leaders. The challenge is to shine the light on ourselves in a way that highlights our strengths, so we can build upon them and encourage our own hearts and those of others. What’s your story? Share it with me at Milena@milenasantoro.com or on Twitter @santoromilena.


Milena Santoro, CWP™, CMM, CMP, PIDP, MS Productions, Inc., Canda and Europe