Thursday, March 26, 2015

heavy, the leader's burden

One of my female students wanted to talk to me about something that had been troubling her, so after class I sat down in our building's clean, streamlined second-floor lounge, which doubles as my "office," and we talked. I had divided all my classes into teams, and my student—we'll call her Daisy—was one of the team captains. According to Daisy, one of her team members isn't pulling his weight, and she wasn't sure how to handle the situation.

We talked a bit about leadership; I asked her whether she wanted to step down as captain, and she said no. I asked her how she had become the team leader; in many cases, with Korean students, it's often just a matter of who wins or who loses at rock-paper-scissors. In Daisy's case, she said her team had selected her. "And you said yes," I said. She nodded. "But you could've said no," I pointed out. She nodded again, now fully aware that she was responsible for her own situation. I wasn't about to let her off the hook.

I told Daisy that a good leader needs to communicate clearly with his or her team members, making expectations explicit from the beginning and not being satisfied with anything less. I said this might not make her many friends, but it's a risk you take when you manage people. I told her that she didn't need to be nasty when dealing with a slacker, but she would need to be firm. Lastly, I told her that, if the slacker kept giving her problems, she should tell me.

I was secretly worried, the entire time we were talking, that Daisy was going to break down and cry, but she turned out to be made of sterner stuff, which was a relief. I told her that she needed to get to know her team members—find out what each was good at and start to exploit those skills. At the same time, she needed to figure out who she was so she could come to know her own leadership style. Some leaders are loud and strong, I noted, while others are quiet and thoughtful. But all good leaders are decisive, have a plan or a vision, and act with confidence. Daisy looked down at her feet when I mentioned the confidence thing. She doesn't see herself as particularly charismatic, and I could see that, for her, growing a spine was going to be a painful process. I wanted to give the poor kid a hug, but that would have been patronizing.

In the end, the most practical advice I could give Daisy was "come see me" if her lazy team member kept slacking and/or giving her shit. I joked that she should think about asking some ajumma on the street for advice: Korean ajummas don't take crap from anyone, perhaps because they realize that life is short and one's precious moments shouldn't be wasted either being weak or dealing with the weak.


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