Leaders come in all shapes and other lessons from a mentor

It would be a lie if I said that I had a well-threshed out idea of who or what a good leader was, when I was 25. Sure, I’d already had nine years of college by then, lived in 5 cities across two countries. It wasn’t for lack of exposure. However, my idea of a leader, certainly till that time, had been all extroverted, Type A personalities, many larger than life. Starting with my father, maternal grandfather, role models in college and my graduate adviser, every one of them had fit this mold. And then I met Brad Bradford.

Eighteen months into my first job, I got promoted to be a section manager – fancy title for doing more of the same, but this time it was my rear that was on the line. Brad had been my manager’s manager and now here I was reporting into him. While I’m no physical giant, being much slimmer than me (not too hard, these days) Brad was small made. On top of it, he was quiet, understated and very measured when he spoke.

Brad made me completely reassess what a leader is and how a leader operates. Some of these lessons bear repeating as I keep falling into my old ways.

Bearing & carriage I recall my mom often urging me to stand straight and not slouch. Brad was living proof of what my poor mom had meant by bearing and carriage. The manner in which he stood, walked and carried himself communicated loudly even when he didn’t say a word. Once when the production line was down and we were furiously trying experiments, some of which were 12 hours long, to figure out what was broken. Brad would walk over to my cubicle and stand right there and look at me – not a word would be said to communicate that he was there to support us and to make sure we gave it our all. On that Monday day the factory was sold and we’d all been called to a meeting to tell us that we’d no longer have a job, Brad’s bearing and carriage said more about how we’d survive this and carry on than any words could have.

Action not words While I’ve always been voluble, some might say long-winded, Brad was – and I suspect still is –  a man of few words. This is not to say that he didn’t have a lot to say but he was the archetype of SHOW not tell. Whether pressing with upper management for more resources, negotiating with vendors or getting down to the factory floor to run or check on experiments, Brad was not big on “Let me tell you…” but got out there and did it. Never once in the two years I’d worked with him did I hear Brad raise his voice. All too often I had to strain to hear what he was saying!

Smile and humor For a man from Minnesota, working with a bunch of young, fresh graduates from India, Iran, Eastern Europe and laid back West Coast types, I’m surprised Brad didn’t throw things at us or at least yell even if he might have been tempted to take an axe (or the whatever weapon of choice Minnesotans had). As our factory was being, built once a week we’d have a crisis. The factory director, a storybook Texan with an enormous temper, would lead the raving and ranting that involved much frothing at the mouth. We young ‘uns would be easily offended and spoiling for a fight at being accused of doing a poor job. Brad on the other hand, unflappable as ever, would be an island of calm. He had a devastating smile and an understated sense of humor, that not only maintained his sanity but kept the rest of us cowboys in line.

Brad, thank you for showing me what leadership is and how you can lead effectively without being an Attila. I’m still learning to practice some of the lessons you’ve taught me.


You can read all the posts in my 30 days of gratitude series here.

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