“I believe the real difference between success and failure in a corporation can be
very often traced to the question of how well the organization brings out the great
energies and talents of its people.”
Thomas J. Watson, Jr.
A Business and its Beliefs (1963)
“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you
become a leader, success is all about growing others.” – Jack Welch.
So, how do you ‘grow others’? How do you turn a “dog-eat-dog” battle to climb the corporate ladder into helping others. Well, one way to go up is to climb ladders, knocking of rivals and competitors along the way. That’s the standard way. That’s the dumb way. The other way, is to open the elevator doors – and as I found out, to open them not just for yourself, but for others. Years ago I was working as an English Professor at Woosong University in Daejeon, South Korea. Woosong was a behemoth. It hired well over 100 English professors, and we all were assigned classes and duties hither and thither. Working there was like being a small cog in an impossibly large and unfathomable machine. There was no sense of personal connectedness, no concrete view of impact we were having. We were never with any group of students long enough to form those crucial, longed for bonds of care and trust.
In the midst of this rather grim atmosphere an unexpected opportunity appeared. A door was opened. A colleague, Tim Thompson, contacted me with a horizontal promotion. It was to work 50% of my time with the Tourism Department, in a teaching program that Tim was pioneering. It was aimed at making English education both meaningful and rewarding. On face value, the promotion wasn’t a huge thing; no boost in salary, no secretary, no private jet; but it became a huge thing. What began as a schedule of working half my time with just one department, soon became the realization of my teaching desires, to have my own sense of place, to be enabled to make deep connections and to see my impact on the lives of my colleagues and students. It was the opening of a door to job satisfaction, to a sense of purpose and to leadership. I don’t know how Tim was able to see in me; out of 100 plus teachers; the potential for successful leaders know that the career ladder is not a zero-sum game. One of the key points that my own story has taught me, is the value of managers who are perspicacious, canny, utlizers of the human resources they have at their disposal. These rare individuals - and in any rigidly hierarchical organization such people really are rare – see the big picture, and view talented colleagues not as a threat or competitor but as a resource and a boon. Tim was that kind of guy, as was his boss Professor Mikyoung Shin. They gave me a chance to develop myself, even when it conflicted with their own apparent interests.
The next major nudge in my career was being poached by the Culinary Arts Department. This was widely regarded as one of Woosong’s ‘flagship’ departments, the crème de la crème if you will. It was again I think, an example of leadership in action. Head-hunting has something of a noxious odor to it. Both the poacher and the poached are all too often viewed as lacking in loyalty, as being selfish even. Yet, loyalty is not a one way street and should not be seen as a lifelong debt from employee to employer. Tim and Professor Shin, rather than begrudging my departure actually recommended me for the position and encouraged me to accept the new role. They had invested in me, and yet they were happy to see me take that investment further afield. Like a grown fledgling’s parents they bade me well and hoped I’d fly. Tim gave me a parting gift of advice and encouragement, “go do post-grad studies, you’ll be stuck without it”.
Years have passed since Tim first shocked me with his trust and belief in my own worth. I like to imagine that I have not disappointed his gamble too badly. As Nietzsche once said “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.” Well, after Tim opened the door I did win the “Teacher of the Year Award” three times in six years. Some might say this was at Tim’s expense, but I assert it was through Tim’s expense. I also earned the “summa cum laude” at Woosong’s TESOL
Masters program – honoring his parting advice from years earlier. Yet, had Tim not given me a reason to continue in the teaching profession and the impetus to further my own study through this program, it would never have happened. Without these benchmarks, I cannot believe I would be where I am today, hoping my own students will out-do me. The door he opened was not just to a better job, but to a better opinion of myself and my reciprocal duties to others. The door he opened was, in short, the door to being a leader, a leader who develops other leaders fearlessly. My ‘pupils’ are not my competitors, not even if they replace me in my job. They are a reflection of my success and a validation of it.