Manning The Helm As A Young Skipper

17 03 2012

I had been married all of one month in the spring of 1988.  It was then that I hired in as the manager of a full-line bakery here in northern New York.  I was fairly green at the young age of twenty-four.

That first year of reorganizing the bakery was trying and fatiguing.  I learned lots of lessons and made plenty of mistakes.  I was the sole man in charge and my boss, the owner of a chain of bakeries, lived a hundred miles away in the Mohawk Valley.  I saw him rarely.  I was on my own.

One of the early challenges I faced was leading a crew of employees, many of whom were at least ten years older than me.  It was intimidating.  There was plenty of “we didn’t do that when [insert a previous manager] ran this place.”  It goes with the territory.

I was faced with the difficulties of leading with heart, fairness and a strong hand.  I did well some times; other times I blew it.  I would do things differently today, but it is well-known that hindsight is a 20/20 enterprise.

Today in our mentoring time, we discussed the challenges of being a young leader who has to grasp the nettle and lead—and yes, fire—employees old enough to be our parents.  It is never easy.

What to do then?

The apostle Paul, writing to his young protégé Timothy, commanded him “let no man despise your youth.”  Among other things, that meant that Timothy had been given charge and oversight of a group of people and he was not permitted to duck the responsibility of steering the ship competently and forcefully.

Here are some time-honored principles for leading with distinction:

  • Lead by example.  Paul told Timothy to be an example to the people under his charge by the way he lived his life.  You must be the first to do the heavy lifting.  The motto for Israeli officers today is “After me!”  People buy into you and your leadership when you get into the trenches and sweat.  It’s much easier to take directives from a leader with his sleeves rolled up and perspiration on his brow.
  • Avoid arrogance like the plague.  Giving people the back of the hand—harsh remarks, constant criticisms with no commendations, sarcasm—will sink the ship and demoralize the troops.  Be humble.
  • Treat people old enough to be your parents with deference befitting their age.  Paul told Timothy to treat elders like fathers and mothers.  That makes it much easier when you have to make tough executive choices.
  • Don’t apologize for being young.  You got hired to do your job because you demonstrated some level of leadership acumen.  Even if you feel “all at sea” with intimidation, you need not show it.  People respect a man or woman who can make a decision and abide by it.
  • Be optimistic and avoid petty shop gossip.  As one of my supervisors counseled me, “In everything you do, be a class act.”

You have the wheel of the ship.  Sail on and prosper!

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