A Leader is a Teacher—Take Time to Teach Leadership

A Leader is a Teacher

There was a time in my life that I abhorred the phrase “everything rises and falls on leadership.” I’m still not a big fan of the saying, but mainly because I think most people misuse or misunderstand it.

I’ll also admit that I’m not a fan of the phrase because the words still sting a bit due to past experience. Let me share why.

The Story of An Untrained Leader

Years ago, when I was fresh out of college, I was hired as a band director for a private school. Now, knowing my training and experience, this is problem number one in the tale I’m about to tell. I was a vocal major in college, with an emphasis in church music, so my band and orchestra training consisted of nothing more than the bare minimums my major required for graduation. So, all in all, I probably shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, and if I’d had better options at the time I wouldn’t have taken the job.

One year during Christmas season, the 15-piece stage band that I’d started was scheduled to play music in the lobby for a big event. That year our band had a really fantastic instrumentalist, so many of the songs I’d chosen featured this student as a soloist. Everything was going well until I began to check the roll and realized that he was late. The minutes ticked away and he didn’t show.

My ultimate supervisor was in attendance, so I went to him in a panic, explained what was going on, and asked what I should do. You know what his response was? He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, Jeff, everything rises and falls on leadership,” then turned his back on me.

I felt like I’d been slapped. I went to ask for help and leadership advice but ended up shamed and embarrassed. I walked away feeling like an utter failure—the entire situation was obviously my fault—my fault this kid’s parents didn’t bother bringing him to play because they didn’t think it was worth their time to drive across town. I later learned this was precisely why the student never showed up.

My face still burns a little 20 years later.

In this moment I was a scared, clueless, panicked kid who went to someone he respected for help. This leader and mentor let a teachable moment slip past. He didn’t bring it up again and never pulled me aside to talk about what happened or what I could have done to avoid the situation and how to avoid similar situations in the future.

I never went and asked him for help or advice again.

It wasn’t until my annual review that this event reared its ugly head again—as a black mark on my employment record. I got dressed down for letting it happen, experiencing the shame afresh.

Not once was a single word spoken to help me become the leader I’d apparently failed to be. Not once was I shown by my leaders how to be a better leader. The prevailing attitude was one of, “we hired you to be a leader, so we expect you to lead.”

The Vicious Cycle of Bad Leadership

Am I attempting to deflect all responsibility for my failure? Absolutely not—this situation was a complete failure of leadership on my part. In hindsight, I can see that I shouldn’t have relied on this particular student and his parents—they had exhibited similar behavior in the past. I can see now that I could have handled the situation itself differently. My band had some music prepared that didn’t require this soloist’s presence, but in the moment I panicked, froze, and failed to look for a solution.

But this is where having a supervisor looking over my shoulder to help me navigate could have prevented all this from happening. It really should have been a no-brainer to keep tabs on a kid fresh out of college who wasn’t much older than the students he’d been tasked to lead. Instead, I was pretty much left to myself. The only feedback I ever received from my supervisors was either discipline when something went wrong or at my annual review.

The truth is that I was an extremely weak leader in those days. I was insecure, under-skilled, untrained, and in over my head. As a result, my own leadership style turned acerbic and dictatorial—demanding obedience and respect as a right. On my best days I was bossy to my students, while on my worst I should have been fired on the spot. I’d abandoned the role of teacher altogether because that was the style of leadership which had been modeled for me. Unfortunately, I can honestly say this was one of the hallmarks of my eight years of teaching at two different schools.

To any former students of mine who may read this—I’m so very sorry.

I don’t want to sound like I’m throwing my old supervisor under the bus. Rather, I hope I’m making a strong enough point to any leaders who read this about how great an opportunity and responsibility you have as a leader to educate and build up your team members.

Leaders Take Time to Teach Leadership

Do you have employees you are responsible for supervising? Are you a team leader of any sort? Guess whose job it is to ensure they succeed?


You see, I do agree that everything rises and falls on leadership, but don’t ever forget there’s a chain of command within any properly ordered leadership structure. It’s true that you’ve hired employees based on their knowledge, skills, talents, and experience in particular areas, but if you’re further up the chain of command then you’re at least partially responsible for their leadership successes and failures.

One of leadership’s chief responsibilities is to facilitate team success—to do everything possible to prepare for and foster success. This includes looking for weaknesses and inadequacies within your team, as well as helping team members recover from failure and learn from their mistakes. It’s a leader’s responsibility to fill in the gaps wherever team members might be lacking.

“But we don’t do on-the-job training,” you say. “We expect our new hires to know what they’re doing before coming on board.”

Preposterous. How can anyone, no matter how talented or experienced, know how to do everything the right way the moment they walk in the door? It takes the average employee several months at the least to get acclimated to an organization’s culture and processes. There’s no way they won’t make some missteps from the get-go, and possibly for months to come.

It’s their leader’s responsibility to teach and train them—to walk as an example in front of them until they get settled, and then continue to walk beside them as a teacher every day thereafter.

As a leader, you should be available at any given moment to help your team members solve problems. Give them permission to fail by showing them you’ve not only got their back and will support them, but more importantly by being there to help them get back on their feet when they do fall. When someone in your care fails, the very first question you should ask is not, “How did you let this happen?” but rather, “What could I have done as their leader to help prevent this failure?” and “How can I help them succeed in the future?”

This is taking ownership of your team, not as a dictator who punishes minions who make mistakes but rather as a shepherd who demonstrates care and concern for the team. A leader commiserates with team members over failures and cheers them on regardless of the circumstances. A leader understands team members will fail more than they succeed, and is there to help them learn and grow from those failures.

A leader who doesn’t want to take on the responsibility of teaching their people how to lead really doesn’t want to be a leader. What they want is to be a boss who sits in a corner office and dictates orders, metes out punishment, and collects a paycheck.

For more about learning how to be a great leader, I suggest you listen to the Chris LoCurto podcast regularly.

Still Learning

Fortunately, I’ve had better mentors and role models in the years since my school teaching days—particularly over the last 12 years or so. I’m still learning and growing as a leader, which I think is another hallmark of good leadership. I realize that I have great weaknesses, have learned how to identify those weaknesses, and strive to overcome them.

I’m reminded of a post I wrote a while back called Leaders Never Bully. There’s a great Jim Rohn quote I made into a graphic, so I thought I’d share it here again. It’s great reminder about the role and challenges of real leadership.

Challenge of Leadership

The Power of Humanization: Six Ways to Humanize Your Brand


So much of our online social media world isn’t social. It’s stale and technical. Those of us who are trying to promote our blogs or our products often automate things because frankly there’s only so many hours in the day. We can’t write books and blog posts or create products if we’re spending all our time online.

Wired Magazine started something in their print version a little while ago that at first I thought was a nice little gimmick, but the more often I saw it the more I began to understand it was a way of humanizing their publication. If you grab a recent issue of Wired and take a look at the credits section near the front—the “Who Does That?” section—you’ll see something pretty cool.

They take the time to go around the office and ask the staff a question of some sort, then they print some of the best answers in the page margins with arrows pointing to the member of the production staff who said it. It’s a way for you to get a tiny little glimpse into the lives and personalities of the people who create the magazine, and it also encourages you to actually pay attention to who those people are for once.

I don’t know about you, but I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve looked at the credits page of any magazine—until Wired. Now, it’s one of the pages I check out first when the latest issue hits my mailbox.

How can you humanize what you do—whether it’s for a blog or business? How can you stay competitive in today’s over-saturated market and retain a sense of realism and empathy?

Six Ways to Humanize Your Brand

1. Honesty:
Don’t try to hide yourself behind slick marketing campaigns and massaged messages. Yes, you should be professional. Yes, you should put your best foot forward. Yes, you should advertise your product. But don’t try to be someone you’re not. Don’t fudge the numbers on your publicity packet or say you have experience you don’t have. Don’t try to make your experiences sound bigger or more impressive than they truly are. Deliver on your promises, and be quick to admit when you know you’re going to fall short of those promises. Unrelenting honesty builds trust with your audience. Trust reinforces your humanity.

2. Transparency:
Don’t hide your mistakes. Use them as teachable moments you can share with other to show how you’re not perfect and how you’re still learning and growing as a person. And don’t be afraid to get off-topic once in a while. You don’t want to do this too often or your alienate yourself from your audience, but breaking the fourth wall every now and then reminds your audience that there’s a real person behind it all. Share your interests, your struggles, your faults and failures, your frustrations, your hope and dreams—all the stuff that gives your audience a glimpse of the real you.

3. Communicate “Humanly”:
This sounds a little bit like defining a word by using the same word, but one of the best ways to humanize what you do is to intentionally try to write and speak like a real person.  Avoid using jargon or specialized language. Use humor, even to the point of poking fun at yourself.  Sign your emails with your real name, not a company name or title alone. Work to build emotional connections, but don’t try to manipulate emotions.

4. Customer Service:
No matter who you are, you’re selling something. Even if you’re not charging money and no actual product changes hands, you’re at the very least attempting to persuade people to think. So, as a salesperson, you’ve got to think in terms of customer service. Are you truly serving your customers.

5. Build Bridges:
It’s often tempting to look at your Facebook friends and see them as nothing more than another marketing stream. Not that you shouldn’t ever advertise what you do in your private life, but think about balance. Imagine hanging out with a friend who suddenly never talks about anything but their business or product. At first it’s okay because they’re excited about this new venture and want to share it with you, but soon it feels like their trying to make a sale every time you have a conversation. How much do you want to keep hanging out with your friend? Treat your personal social media accounts with the same care and discretion.

6. Social Interaction:
Without implementing a hard and fast rule that you MUST respond to every comment on your blog and social media accounts, or that you should personally respond to each and every email, keep in mind that one of the most powerful ways to keep that human touch alive is to communicate freely and often with your audience. If you have opportunities to speak in public, I’d recommend you always make sure you have time to meet with audience members afterward. Building a community that you’re regularly involved in keeps you humble and human. Above all, try to listen more than you speak when you have the opportunity to interact with your community.

Budget Tip: Implement Monthly Spending Caps

Budget Tip_ Implement Monthly Spending Caps

An idea I beat like a drum here at The Incremental Life, as well as in my coaching and teaching, is that the single most effective way to achieve your goals is through enacting behavior change. Behavior change isn’t easy—letting go of bad habits and embracing good ones is among the most difficult of human endeavors. But the truth remains that for us to experience the results we want over the long term we must change what we do and how we do it.

Habit change is central to long-term success when you’re working to get your finances in order. It’s relatively easy to make small changes for a short amount of time—an important first step—but when working toward long-term change the harder part is making those changes stick and then building upon them.

The idea behind The Incremental Life is making these small changes and sticking it out until they become habits, and then make more small changes. This is often called habit stacking, and it’s one of the best ways to foster long-term growth and success.

When you’re looking at your budget, much of what’s going on is a set of practices and habits that have developed over time. These habits continue out of sheer inertia more than anything else. Getting your spending habits under control means changing how you spend that money. A great way to start changing your spending habits is to place caps on that spending.

Placing caps on your spending is a nice exercise that helps you take in a broad view of your budgeting practices. The goal is to find areas within your budget where you’re overspending or where you can find some wiggle room to cut down on your expenses in certain categories.

It doesn’t matter if your goal is to get out of debt, save for a vacation, or start setting aside extra money in savings—implementing spending caps will help you take the first steps toward changing how you spend your money.

4 Ways to Cap Your Monthly Spending

1. Place a general cap on the entire budget.
Let’s say your family’s monthly income is $4,000. First, take a good look at your current budget category allocations and your spending habits to determine how much you’re actually spending on average each month. Next, see where you can trim your spending, especially in categories such as groceries and entertainment. Be sure you take into account how much you’re giving to charity and stocking away for retirement and college—these are part of your monthly outflow as well. When you’ve trimmed all you can, you may be able to get your total spending down to $3,600—a savings of $400 per month.

2. Place caps on specific budget categories.
Work your way backwards toward spending caps by limiting spending on specific line items within your budget. Look at how much you spend on certain budget categories and see where you can trim the fat. If, for instance, you’ve been spending an average of $800 per month on groceries, see if you can make cuts and get it down to around $675 or so—$125 worth of savings each month. Once you’ve looked over your entire budget, you may be able to shave off a nice chunk of money from your total monthly expenditures.

3. Place attempted limits on budget line items.
Though not the same as implementing direct spending caps, another approach is to experiment for a month or two and see how little you can get by spending on certain types of expenditures. For instance, let’s assume you spend about $160 on gas for two cars. Your habit may have been to fill up all the way then your car runs low, but instead you could make the attempt to spend no more than $140 on gas for the entire month. This equals four visits to the gas station totaling $35 each—two for each car. Instead of filling up all the way, stop when the pump hits $35, then see how far you can get on your partially filled tank. I’d lay odds that you’ll begin watching your driving habits a bit more closely, making sure you’re combining many errands and tasks into single trips in an effort to stretch your gas through the entire month.

4. Place temporary moratoriums on specific budget line items.
Instead of implementing specific spending limits on all or some of your budget, you may be able to better reach short-term financial goals through temporarily cutting spending altogether on certain line items within your budget. Line items you can consider cutting could be things like eating out, coffee runs, dry cleaning, high-end cable packages—anything that might not be part of your family’s basic necessities. Many families can save several hundred dollars in any given month by temporarily getting rid of non-essential extras.

Use Cash Envelopes

The best way to control your self-imposed spending limits is to start using cash envelopes for the budget categories for which you set those limits. Don’t over think this, using cash envelopes is easy.

In one of the examples above, I proposed a $675 monthly spending limit for groceries. Using a cash envelope in this instance is as simple as withdrawing $675 cash out of the bank, placing it in an envelope marked “Groceries” and then using that cash to purchase nothing but groceries for the entire month.

If paid every two weeks, it might be necessary to split up the $675 and fill up the envelope with $337.50 two times during the month. Either way, when the envelope is empty—when the $675 is gone—then grocery spending is done.

Carry this cash envelope implementation across several budget categories where practical and you’ll find your spending habits rapidly altering. When you can see the money emptying out of the envelope you become much more aware of how much your spending. When your envelope gets down to the last $20 or so, I guarantee you’ll be very judicious about how spend it.

Save and Spend Wisely

This is the flip side of building disciplined spending caps. Not only do you have to be intentional about changing your spending habits to free up all this money, but you must remain intentional about the use of that money once it’s free. If your plan was to save for retirement or pay down your debt, then choose to be disciplined and stick to that plan.

Have you ever used spending caps to get and keep control of your budget? Please share your story and ideas in the comments.

Free Download—99 Ways to Upgrade Your Life NOW!

Free ebook download—99 Ways to Upgrade Your Life NOW!After months of teasers, promises, and false starts, I’m pleased to announce that my new ebook, 99 Ways to Upgrade Your Life NOW!, is finally available.

Originally titled The Road to Awesomethis book took on a life of its own during writing—quickly ballooning from a few thousand words to well over 100,000. Feeling like I was on to something big, I soldiered on and decided to spin The Road to Awesome off as a full-fledged book in its own right. I’ll be talking a little more about that next week.

Once I was done writing The Road to Awesome, I came back to reality and started the work of writing my promised ebook. I took some of the best bits I’d written in The Road to Awesome, condensed it down to less than 90 pages of content, and retitled it 99 Ways to Upgrade Your Life NOW!

My hope is that you’ll download and read this ebook to find simple, purposeful, and practical ways you can improve your life one little step at a time. I focus on what I feel are the six most crucial areas of life—self, money, work, family, community, and faith.

Rather than read through the ebook and try every idea you find, my challenge to you is to read and discover which ideas resonate deepest with you. That you’ll either be open to finding your weaknesses and blind spots so that you can give them intentional focus, or that you’ll gain a new perspective on certain aspects of your life which will lead to greater momentum and contentment.

To get your own copy of 99 Ways to Upgrade Your Life NOW!simply fill out the form below (or the form in the sidebar to the right) and sign up for my newsletter. You’ll soon be redirected to a new page where you can download this new ebook in PDF, Kindle, and ePub formats. (HINT: The PDF version is the pretty one.)

Thanks for reading The Incremental Life. I hope you enjoy and find great value from 99 Ways to Upgrade Your Life NOW!

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