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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Your "Status" As A Leader

Earlier in my career, I was kind of a big deal. I had “status.”

I had the opportunity to travel all over the world for business, and over time I built up status with my preferred airlines, hotels, car rental companies, and credit cards. That status earned me respect and attention.

I was frequently upgraded and rarely waited in line. While others scavenged for food, I took advantage of lounges, exclusive happy hours, and first class meals. When storms or mechanical problems caused flight delays and lines ballooned at the customer service desk, I called a special number and was able to make the necessary changes without a high degree of stress. When running late to make a connection, often times, someone was at the gate waiting to escort me to my next flight. Arriving at hotels, I was typically greeted by name, perhaps welcomed with wine, fruit and other treats, and given more space than I could ever really use. I rarely had to face the tired agent at the car rental counter, I went directly to the car of my choice, bypassing the throngs of impatient travelers and screaming children.

Like I said, I thought I was kind of a big deal.

That status was easy to come by, if you spent the money and achieved certain thresholds. You knew what you had to do, even if it was an end of the year last minute trip to New Orleans or Buenos Aires to get the points needed to elevate your status. True stories.

But when it comes to leadership and earning the respect of those around you, that is quite a different story.

Status, or true respect isn’t awarded with years on the job, an impressive set of stats on a resume, or even a title. It is earned, over time and with actions, and that status ebbs and flows, often without warning. When flying a particular airline, I was virtually guaranteed a level of respect. A title on my business card doesn’t hold the same status if it isn’t earned through hard work, thoughtful actions, and dedication to those around you.

Teaching from personal reflection. . .

Years ago, I worked for a CEO with an impressive resume. Smart, thoughtful, but his best quality, in my opinion, was his ability to teach those around him through the lessons that he learned during his own journey. He didn’t preach, “do as I do” but instead, he would offer us stories of obstacles that he hit along the way, and how he was able to work past them, either on his own, or with the help of others. Or sometimes, and it was even more endearing, when he failed to meet a challenge, and what he learned from it. It personally has made me more comfortable taking risks and admitting mistakes through my own journey, and I find myself sharing his lessons with those that I work with today.

When the going gets tough. . .

I’ve worked for some smart, very smart people who, when times were great, were extremely supportive and inspirational leaders. But it’s easier to be a good leader when the seas are calm. When the tide turned and the seas got a little choppy, you never really felt that they were truly on your side. The questions that were asked by surprise in meetings, the side conversations, the lack of public support for initiatives that they once championed. . .in tough times these “leaders” turned to self preservation. Truly great leaders will continue to challenge when times are tough, but there is a feeling of ownership that is reassuring. I had the opportunity to work for a boss who would continually remind us, “we are in this together, sink or swim”, and those weren’t just words, they were reinforced with actions. That is the type of leader that I aspire to be.

Be willing to take a stand. . . I will admit, early in my career, I had a tendency to wait until I could sense the general direction that most were heading in. If I agreed, I jumped on board, if not, I fell a bit silent. Until one day, I had a boss challenge me, “In the absence of a real opinion, you are welcome to mine!” He challenged me to be willing to take a stand, to push back, in a respectful manner. I presented a business case to the owner of a company who peppered me with questions, while looking directly at me and not down at my presentation. Afterwards over a drink he said, “It was less about whether I believed in the strategy, my confidence level was based on whether or not I felt you believed.” He wanted me to take a stand. I am fond of saying to my team, “don’t chase me down the rabbit hole on this one”, my way of tossing out a thought or an idea, without my team feeling like they just need to execute the idea without challenging it or thinking it through further. Ultimately I may need to make a decision, even an unpopular one, but as a leader, I aspire to encourage others to take a stand, to challenge the status quo, and respectfully stand up for what they believe in.

Understanding the moment. . . My current boss has a knack for knowing exactly when to send me a text, an email, or pick up the phone just to see how I am doing at just the right moment. Somehow, he is able to sense that moment when I may be struggling or frustrated, and his words of support and encouragement are just enough to get me through the moment. I will admit, I struggle with this, knowing when to turn up the heat and when to dial it back. My application of “consistency” sometimes has me missing the mark at times when I need to listen more, not jump into action with a solution.

I remember a conversation with one of my direct reports, when two minutes into the conversation, I started jumping to a solution. He stopped me and said, “I don’t need you to solve this, right now, I just need you to listen!” Lesson learned, I needed to better understand the moment.

Inspiring others to lead. . .

Have you ever worked for someone who you would follow into battle without question? Who inspired you to push beyond your limits? I was heading to New York for what I thought was my dream job, when by chance, I was introduced to the president of another company. Within ten minutes, I thought, “if I get the opportunity, I want to work for this person.” I turned down the dream job and accepted the offer to work with this authentic leader. Even during the toughest times, he knew how to bring out the best in those around him, including me. He inspired not only through his words, but also through his actions. We’d get into a cab and by the end of the ride, he’d be on a first name basis with someone who just moments before was a complete stranger. And if he ever got into that same cab again, they would start up where they left off. But his true value wasn’t just in leading, it was inspiring others to lead. Challenging ideas with “what if” questions, and then empowering us to go after what we believed in. It takes a certain skill to lead the way, I think an even greater skill to encourage those around you to lead and lean forward.

As for my “status”?

There is no chart that tells you what your current status is as a leader, how many points you have left to earn, and what your “reward” is when you reach a threshold. It simply isn’t that easy. It is earned. Some days I feel like I have hit a threshold and have advanced to the next level, other days I realize I have thousands of miles left to log.

As I've traded points for purpose, I just handed back my last platinum card and now I scramble like the other 95% for that last bit of overhead space, an extra bag of peanuts, or the last flight out of town. Do I miss my "status"? Sure, but I still enjoy traveling just as much as I ever have. And I've learned to appreciate that there are many ways to achieve status. Every time I get the unexpected phone call from a former colleague to tell me about a recent promotion, or seeking my advice or guidance, that is the greatest reward I've ever received.

As for my travel status? Sometimes, you meet some real first class people sitting in the back of the plane...

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