As an early teen my average, middle-class, family moved us into the “rich” neighborhood of Grosse Pointe. This Detroit suburb promised better schools for me and my sister. If you are thinking of the movie Grosse Pointe Blank
, that is the place. Though with fewer spies... oh, and it was shot in a completely different town. Looking back, it was a struggle. I found it hard to fit in. Soon, I was falling in with the wrong crowd, that is, until I learned some valuable lessons. I was fortunate to have two mentors I rely on to this day: my high school wrestling coach and my grandfather who was a restaurateur. They each taught me lessons that allowed me to become a leader instead of a follower and shaped the leader I am today. As I reflect on the lessons that these two men taught me, the same three concepts stand out: lead by example, elevate those around you and take ownership of your actions – or L.E.O. as I refer to them. While the concepts were the same, these two very different men conveyed them in unique ways.
Lead by Example
As a junior in high school, I was unexpectedly made captain of the wrestling team. It may come as a surprise to those who know me, but at that time in my life, I was not the most vocal person in the room. I asked my coach why he chose me over some of the seniors on the team, and he told me it was because of my work ethic. I had always been a hard worker, but I had never viewed this as a leadership quality. He explained that when an effective team sees someone who is dedicated and putting in their all, it becomes infectious and inspires the rest. Once I understood that concept, I started to see the impact that it had. I worked even harder. As a result, we brought a record number of people to the state finals a year later. Hard work worked.
My grandfather is not the most eloquent speaker and is not a master strategist, but he was always the hardest working person in the restaurant. He would be the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. If there was a job that needed to be covered, he would jump in and do it. No job was beneath him. He always told me that you cannot expect others to do something you would not do yourself. This lesson is one that I have found to mean the most to me in any leadership role that I have had.
“If there was a job that needed to be covered, he would jump in and do it. No job was beneath him. He always told me that you cannot expect others to do something you would not do yourself.”
One thing that was different about wrestling than any other sport I played was that the varsity team would practice with the JV and freshman teams. The reason for this, besides having someone to clean the mats, was so that the younger teams could learn. If someone did a move incorrectly or did a drill well, it would be demonstrated in front of the entire team. This sharing of information to make the team better was critical for our success. The practice of sharing knowledge and growing the team has been a paramount principle throughout my career and a practice that I have implemented in my firm as well.
In my grandfather’s restaurant, every employee had to know how to do every job. While this served the function of always having someone that could cover for someone else or offer a hand in a pinch, it also served an even more important function, it allowed everyone to understand the hard work that went into each job and to appreciate what one another were doing. The dishwasher was no less important than the chef. When everyone appreciates what others do, it makes all feel valued as an important member of the team. This value is critical to an effective team and elevates each member.
“When everyone appreciates what others do, it makes all feel valued as an important member of the team.”
Own your actions
I was recently watching my old wrestling videos with my fiancé (doesn’t everyone make their significant other watch old sports videos?). We came across a match that I lost in over-time based on a call made by the referee. I remember how upset I was. It was a championship match, and I thought it was a bad call. My coach had zero tolerance for my reaction. He told me that I should not have let the match get to the point where the ref could make the deciding choice. In other words, it was not the ref’s fault but my own for not performing better and securing the match sooner. It felt like harsh advice at the time, but I carry it with me to this day.
As a father of eight children and a Greek restaurant owner, my grandfather obviously employed them all (this is one stereotype that is true). He would always share a story with me about the time he had to fire my uncle. My uncle brought an order to a customer that was not right. When the customer confronted him about it, his terse response was “that is what the kitchen gave me.” My grandfather heard this and fired him immediately. That order became my uncle’s responsibility as soon as he took it. Rather than correcting what he knew to be wrong, he simply blamed the kitchen. While I may be partial since at that time "the kitchen" was my mom, the lesson is still the same. We are all responsible for our own actions; to be respected as a leader, you need to own yours and not blame others. These lessons helped me realize that I did not need to follow the pack, with the right tools I could lead like a lion.
They led me to many leadership positions when I went to college, throughout my career and, ultimately, to become a principal in my architecture firm. They also shaped me into the go-to for guidance in my very large family now that my grandfather has retired. I could not be further from a wrestling mat or the inside of a commercial kitchen, yet these places still guide me. Hopefully, they are now a place that you can visit as you L.E.O. like a lion.
“We are all responsible for our own actions; to be respected as a leader, you need to own yours and not blame others.”
By Ed Wright
DLA Architects, Ltd.
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