Without question, one of the hardest things for a person to do in business is to take the next step from being a great worker to becoming a successful leader.
Most people start at the bottom of the employment chain as a “technician”, working hard to produce a consistent, predictable product, service or solution as mandated from above. Whether it be a craftsman developing widgets, a coder producing code, a banker managing transactions, a salesperson making sales, a repairman fixing appliances, etc., these technicians do their jobs day in, day out. Some do it so well that they soon are promoted to the next level, that of manager or leader.
Others might decide that they can do the work as well if not better than their boss and choose to venture out on their own and start their own business. In other words, they jump from being a technician to a self-anointed entrepreneur.
In his bestselling book Drive (pp. 154-155), author Dank Pink references a conversation between Congresswoman Claire Boothe Luce and President John F. Kennedy. Sensing that the president had too many competing agendas, she sought to focus him by asking him to think about his “one sentence”.
Each great person, she said, has a single sentence that describes him/her. For Abrhama Lincoln, she said, it was “He preserved the union and freed the slaves”. In the case of FDR, a fitting single sentence would be, “He lifted us up from the Great Depression and helped us win a world war”. Because of his competing agendas, Luce felt that Kennedy’s one sentence would instead become an overly muddled paragraph.
We all can have single sentences that describe us, even if our contributions are not as deep and lasting as the aforementioned presidents. Whether they say something about us as individuals, as leaders or as community contributors, having the ability to construct a single sentence that captures our essence can serve as a great guidepost and motivator.
My first leadership experience was the most unusual, most unexpected and most fleeting management role that I ever held. When I was a high school senior, I was asked if I could provide supervision in a kosher restaurant in Manhattan on Saturday nights. I didn't live too far from the place and wanted to earn some extra cash, so I agreed. The position, I was told, included oversight in the kitchen, and, because I could be in and out, manning the cash register.
The first night was going pretty smoothly. It took me a short while to learn the inner workings of the establishment's kitchen and how to operate the register. Not bad, I thought, for $10 an hour. But then, the head waiter told me that I had a phone call.
"Is this the manager?" asked the woman on the line. "Manager?" I thought. I hesitated, thinking that he had called the wrong person to the phone. I asked her to hold and went back to the head waiter. He explained to me that every kosher supervisor who works in that restaurant is also the manager, so yes; I was the right one to answer. I picked the phone back up. The woman, by now confused and a bit annoyed, asked incredulously, "are you sure that you're the manager?" With the confidence of a censored child I meekly replied to the affirmative. Let's just say that I've had better leadership moments than that one.