Leadership Lessons in Unlikely Places

I love the television series “Yellowstone” from the Paramount Network.  It just might be the greatest series since the Sopranos – and that’s saying something.  I don’t watch it for the leadership lessons, but we sure got some last Sunday.

“Yellowstone” is a modern western, and it is soooo good!!  It stars Kevin Costner who plays John Dutton, the patriarch  owner of the largest ranch in the U.S., in Montana. He is incredibly tough on his kids, his employees, and just about everyone he comes into contact with, yet he’s incredibly loyal and takes care of most of them like family. I was inspired by two specific quotes in the latest episode – one dealing with mental toughness and whether or not you’re born with it or if it can be developed.

The other line had to do with the age-old issue of whether or not you can be two things as a boss – friends, as well as an effective leader of those you lead.  I won’t go through the set up of the scenes and the background, as you’ll have to listen to my podcast by the same title, out tomorrow, to get those details.  I will, however, highlight the issues and offer some guidance, as you and I, and every other leader out there, has or will face this issue many times over during their careers as leaders.

Mental and Emotional Toughness

“You can’t teach that – toughness.  You’re either born a willow or you’re born an oak.  That’s all there is to it.”

I love this.  I thought it was the line of the episode.  Now at first I kind of reacted like this was another age-old issue – are leaders born or made? Although this was centered around toughness, so in my mind, having courage, standing up for yourself, standing up to bullies, not being afraid to fail, defying all the naysayers, persevering against the odds, determination and the will to succeed no matter what – that’s what this line was all about to me.

As I’ve thought about it during the week, I’m still deciding on whether or not I agree with it fully.  I believe that you can teach a certain amount of toughness to people, you can coach them to be strong, train people and role play to handle conflict effectively, yet it also develops naturally after having been trampled on, or embarrassed, or cast aside – you get pissed, and you develop a mental toughness.

Leaders and Friends

“I never had much luck leading men and being their friend.  Maybe it can be different for you.”

This is one of the leadership questions of the century!  Can you be friends with the people you lead, the people you’re in charge of, and still be an effective boss and leader?

So there it is.  Have you dealt with it yet?  If you’re a supervisor, manager, leader of any kind or capacity, then you’ve experienced it – what it feels like to be peers one day, and then the boss the next!  It’s probably the hardest thing to come to grips with other than letting someone go.

You know that expression – “it’s lonely at the top”?  Well I think it applies here.  Now in my opinion, you have a choice to make.  You can either go on being their friend and try and treat them like a peer – go out drinking with them, go fishing and hunting with them, play golf, attend each others’ family barbecues – as if nothing has changed.  And you’d be making the biggest mistake of your leadership career.  Why?  Because the fact is, things are different.  You are the boss now.  And with that comes a whole new set of responsibilities and accountabilities, and your job literally depends on it. You’re responsible for reviewing their performance, giving them their raise, providing coaching and feedback, you name it.  It is different.  And the sooner you recognize this, the better.

Your former peers or direct reports start to worry about the things you all said and did together in the past.  They start to worry about skeletons in the closet coming out, whether or not they will be held accountable for past transgressions, and how you’re going to treat them going forward.  So they start treating you differently, and you start wondering why.  You want to be their friend, because it feels comfortable, and you enjoy their company, but you have to recognize the responsibility the company gave you by putting you in this leadership role.

Leadership Guidance

  • It’s lonely at the top, so recognize that when you become a boss, whether you’re supervising your former peers or not, you can be friends outside of work, but don’t ever miss the opportunity to be clear on expectations and do what is necessary to get the job done.  If you can’t do the job the way it needs to be done, then don’t accept the promotion, or only accept it by moving to another location where those relationships don’t exist.
  • Recognize that people are different when it comes to their mental and emotional makeup.  Some are stronger than others.  And whether you’re an outspoken boss or a soft-spoken leader, both can be effective.  People will react differently to different situations.  Some will need more help and coaching than others.  Everyone is different, and you should coach your team based on their individual needs.
  • Leadership is hard.  You have people you’re responsible for, and you have people you are answering to, and you need to deliver the goods, the results, while trying to manage and lead through all the issues that encompass being a leader. It’s not for the faint of heart.  You’ve got to be up for the task.  Things will be different with you and your team – relationships, the discussions you either have or don’t have, and whether or not you can be effective in the role and have the ability to put aside any feelings you have about the people you lead.  As a leader, you have a chance to achieve things and impact results on a broader level.  You can be an inspiration to those you lead, and influence their lives, both personally and professionally.  It’s a great feeling when you receive feedback that you have.

Whether you were peers and got promoted to be their supervisor, or whether you are simply the new boss, there is the opportunity to be friends outside of work.  You can absolutely do both, but you just need to understand where to draw the line and make sure your employees understand what the new expectations are.  They need to know and accept that you will recognize them for great work and hold them accountable when things don’t go well and expectations aren’t met.

Check out “Yellowstone” Leadership Lessons, the latest episode of my new leadership podcast, “The REAL DEAL” with Greg Kiraly, on Apple, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or right here.