The lesser-known side of leadership: being a student

I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery store a few months ago. Buying I don’t know what, probably some sugary cereal for my son. He goes bananas for it.

Don’t tell my wife.

Anyway, I was standing in line, and the guy in front of me started getting upset because a product hadn’t been available for a while. He loved this product, he raved about it, “you can’t even keep it on the shelves.”

Admittedly, I wanted to buy it, too. He was convincing, and seriously passionate, so you can imagine the magnitude and volume of his disappointment.

The cashier explained the product was discontinued, and isn’t carried at any of their locations anymore. The man’s disappointment escalated. But the lone, 17 year-old cashier stood her ground—she listened, she apologized, and even offered other stores (competitors) that might carry the product.

When all was said and done, the customer paid for his groceries and said, “thank you.” And not a smug, passive-aggressive “thank you” either, it was genuine.

This was remarkable to me, not the adult getting upset at a teenager working her first part-time job, no, it was her ability to de-escalate and control the situation through empathy. And the fact that the customer thanked her afterwards.

I am the CEO and president of my own company—yet here I am buying some sugary cereal for my son, and taking notes on leadership from a teenager. But the point isn’t the importance of empathy in conflict resolution (though it’s still very important).

The point is, as leaders, we need to be more than mentors, teachers, and advisors. We need to be mentees too—we need to be perpetually studious, endlessly curious, and remember that anyone can be our mentor. Leadership behaviors can be exhibited by anyone, anywhere.

Like, a teenage cashier at the grocery store.

Great leaders are great students

Traditional hierarchy puts leaders at the top. They hold the power, they have the experience—they know what is best for the company. They don’t.

I mean, we don’t.

We often play into the ridiculous, self-imposed charade that our responsibility is to be omnipotent: to know every answer, every detail, and every next step. One of the biggest pitfalls this thinking presents is how limiting it is. How much it restricts the flow of ideas, blunts the sharing of knowledge, strips away empowerment—and corrodes trust between leaders and teams.

Great leaders are great students. But getting to, and staying in the mindset of student or mentee, takes a conscious effort and a lot of practice.

Empathy in the workplace

Flipping the script

The power of a growth mindset

As leaders, we have to acknowledge that the talent and wisdom that got us here were only the first steps—and can only take us so far. We must also recognize our abilities aren’t entirely static or fixed. There is fluidity and flexibility in our expertise, and with the right mindset, there is always room for growth.

With a growth mindset, leaders develop a love for learning, a penchant for curiosity—and view setbacks as opportunities to make strides forward. To experience the world around you differently, to shift your role from that of leader to student—you first need to change your mindset.

This is the power of a growth mindset.

Say it with me: “I don’t know”

There are three words that I’ve struggled with for years as a leader, “I don’t know.”

Those words made me feel weak, directionless, and exposed. Like my employees were rolling out the guillotine and chanting, “off with his head!” I was of course being paranoid, because every single time I said those three words, people were right there to help me find an answer.

As leaders, our egos can interrupt our learning. We attribute not knowing to weakness—when in fact, the complete opposite is true. Be vulnerable, ask for help—only then can you start working together to find answers.

Start seeing “I don’t know” as a strength, not weakness.

Bottom up, not top down

If you run your company, or your teams, based on some form or fashion of trickle-down ideation, you are mistaken. And you are depriving yourself of so many brilliant ideas and novel wisdom.

If your employees are anything like mine, then you probably have a lot of incredible talent and intensely disparate perspectives on your teams. You need to trust and empower them in their expertise and savvy. You need to strive for communication, making every space a psychologically safe space—and when they speak, you need to listen. Like, actually listen. Empathetic communication is your best friend.

We don’t pander, rather, we raise people up because at any time, anywhere, anyone can be your mentor.

Great leaders embrace empathetic leadership. Great leaders are also great students.

They don’t know everything, they don’t even pretend to know everything. Being a great leader is embodying a deep love for learning, and empowering others to be your mentor.

If you want to grow your business, if you want to grow as a leader—you need to flip the script and start thinking like a student.