Thoughts on Leadership

Kate Sheehan
Division of Personnel and Labor Relations
Alaska Department of Administration

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I was born with assertiveness, ambition, stubbornness and inquisitiveness. But I wasn't born a leader. That was learned.

Are leaders born or made?

Probably one of the most asked questions when the topic of leadership comes up. My initial reaction was always born, of course. But recently I’ve begun thinking about being the leader of my division and the qualities I, hopefully, demonstrate. Then it became clear that I most certainly wasn’t born with all these traits but learned them from others – both my supervisors and co-workers. Yes, I was born with assertiveness, ambition, stubbornness, and inquisitiveness. However, there is so much more to my leadership style than those characteristics. 

AngryWhat have I learned from my previous supervisors? I had one boss who would scream and yell at me and my co-workers. It felt as if we could do nothing right. What was happening is I was not presenting the information in the way he needed it; to process it and understand and make a decision. While I don’t condone his reaction, I learned that I need to let my staff know how I need information presented to me and what information I need. They can’t read my mind and I shouldn’t make them guess.

On the opposite spectrum of this supervisor, was my long-time director. Her nickname was The Velvet Hammer. She had an amazing way of delivering bad news without inciting an angry reaction. Part of that was due to how well she was respected within state government. She earned that respect, starting at one of the lowest ranges in state government and making it all the way to Director. She was relatable, hard working and knew the business inside and out. I learned many things from this director but probably the most important lesson was that when I needed an answer, if I only ask the question of others, I won’t retain the information. I need to do the research, learn the answer, and then I will retain it.

A trend I have noticed in my supervisors is kindness and mentorship. And not just the mentorship where they take me under their wing, rather the leader who challenged me and didn’t accept the first answer I provided. I had one commissioner who challenged HR to get to “yes” more and never to rely on the answer “that’s how we’ve always done it.” This same supervisor taught me patience and to not get offended or take it personally when my documents changed to the way he liked it. Another mentor/supervisor was always so willing to spend hours sharing her knowledge with me but also giving me the chance to take on additional responsibilities, so I could learn things myself. And, that it was ok to make mistakes.

World in hand

In state government, it’s not just about how you lead but sometimes playing the political game. Always look two steps ahead and think strategically, even if it doesn’t seem the elected officials are. Always remember the Governor’s agenda when setting your own policy and making decisions. Remember that you speak for him/her and are carrying out the platform they ran on. Finally, keep your boss in the loop. They should never be surprised by a decision I have made or a direction we are headed in HR. That being said, don’t take yourself too seriously even if your role in state government is. I have one high level supervisor who is not pretentious but certainly could be with her resume. She sets the tone for our office which is full of laughter and fun. It’s ok to enjoy work, your staff, your co-workers. I want my staff to enjoy coming to work and know that I am always available and that they should never feel as though I am better than them because I am the director. We are all one team and we all need each other to accomplish our mission.

It’s not just my supervisors that have taught me the skills needed to be a good leader. A lot of credit also goes to those who have worked for me. My staff has taught me to think outside the box.

I’m still working on becoming a leader. There is always something new to learn or a better reaction I can have to a situation. I’m not quite where I want to be yet but I’m working towards it. As I continue to learn from others, I hope I am teaching some of these leadership traits. Because when I look around, HR in particular, I see so many amazing people and leaders. That’s really what HR does. We lead our agencies during difficult and challenging times. We are there with advice, direction, kindness and assistance. Our individual success and HR success is their While there are a lot of black and white areas in the HR world, there is also a lot of gray and there are some great ideas in the gray area. They have taught me to be approachable and that it’s ok to get down, it’s how I get back up that is important. It’s ok to ask for help. My staff, luckily, don’t expect me to have all the answers and if they don’t know the answer, we work as a group to find it. I realize the importance of their ability to step in for me when I am out of the office but in a non-threatening manner. My staff always make it clear that they fully support me and that is invaluable to have in a leadership role.

 This Leadership Project is sponsored by Infor.