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Linda Dunbar Headshot

Leadership: What I Learned From My Super, My Father and The Sopranos

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Leadership by walking around is not a myth. It really works.

After the big storm I took a morning walk. We got about a foot of snow. When I got home, I found out that the assistant super had called and wanted to know if I could move my car so they could clear the snow from my space rather than just piling snow up on my car. Curious. In the last 10 years I have lived in this coop building, every time it snows they have piled snow on the cars of all of the shareholders who park in the outdoor lot. After which one particularly surly staff member would be sure to make a comment about how we parked our cars, when we were just trying to manage around their ineptitude.

This year, when I got down to the lot, instead of silence or one lone staff member clearing snow, I was met by the assistant super who was using a walkie-talkie like he was in a FedEx commercial and several staff members, one of whom I had never seen drive a Bobcat the entire time I have lived in the building. In fact, I'm not sure I have ever seen him in the case of snow. Curiouser. All of a sudden, our sleepy building had come to life. A full hour later, the assistant super was still outside, dusting snow off of cars and waiting for shareholders who might want to clear their parking spaces.

What happened? We have a new super. We have a new super who, instead of sitting in his office and telling people what to do, throws himself into the work to be done. When it snows, he is the first one out of the building, shoveling walkways and surveying what needs to be done. If something in your apartment needs a fix, he comes to your apartment personally with another staff member in tow. This is in sharp contrast to the previous super who kept a low profile and if ever a shareholder had a problem was sure to sidestep or deflect the issue.

The previous super's low profile reminded me of a Sopranos episode in which Tony paid a visit (not a visit, just a visit) to one of his foot soldiers after a long absence. The foot soldier said something like, "Tony, it ain't like it used to be. You don't come around here no more." By which I think he meant, "I used to feel like I was part of something because your leadership and presence was palpable to me."

Leadership means having to go first and pitching in, particularly if the task is not a cushy one. And it means you have to be around.

So, what does this have to do with my father?

Paradoxically, sometimes leadership means getting out of the way.

My father has taught me many things. One of which is that you don't approach all situations and all people the same way all the time. This doesn't mean you can't be fair and just. It just means that the same tack doesn't work with everyone. As he told me repeatedly, "People tell me I should treat my brother and sisters the same. But they are not the same. So, I treat each one differently." Assuming this is a valid approach leadership by walking around is not for all people, situations, and times.

When my father was a dentist in the Army, he had a commanding officer who was an alcoholic. This commanding officer came to work at 9 a.m. and disappeared at noon. My father remembers him as one of the best commanding officers he ever had. Why? Because every day before he disappeared, he walked around the clinic and asked all the dentists if they needed supplies. And he would make sure that whatever they needed, they got. As a highly trained professional, my father wanted to be left alone to do what he did best. Having what he needed to do the job, and free reign to use his own judgment, led to high job satisfaction. So when leading highly-trained professionals make sure they have what they need, clear any obstacles that you can, tell them which direction to take and when the next meet-up is, and get out of their way.

But back to my building: the last time I saw the assistant super, he was dispensing concierge-like restaurant recommendations to a shareholder about to take a vacation in another state. The change in leadership seems to have encouraged the assistant super to step up to the tasks at hand and to enjoy himself, too.