“I don’t like telling adults what to do.”

I have said that many times. Usually, it’s part of an answer to the question: “Why didn’t you enjoy owning a business?”

I answer, “Why didn’t I enjoy owning a business? Because I never liked telling adults what to do.”

Recently, Paul Tela, a Vistage member, asked me to expand on this. He had read my mention of this dislike in a post on Company A / Company B at https://artieisaac.com/blog/2018/04/company-a-company-b/ .

Paul wrote:

Is telling adults what to do an essential function of a leader? Or, can someone be a great leader without telling adults what to do?

Relating to your personal experience, is this dislike a cause of starting your own business or an effect (or neither)? I’m wondering if this is an inherent value or a learned value).

Paul is a software engineer. He presumes more logic than he’s going to get from me today.

Paul, thank you for your provocative wonderment. Here’s my attempt to respond.

What I Mean When I Say:
“I don’t like telling adults what to do.”

First, a Rabbi story.

I asked the Rabbi, “What does this blessing mean?”

The Rabbi gave me that quizzical Rabbi look: “What do you mean, ‘What does it mean?’ It means what the words say. There is not a hidden meaning. You might find the words far-fetched or downright unbelievable, but those are the words. And that’s what the blessing means.”

The same is true here. There’s not a deeper meaning. The words are what I mean. I don’t like telling adults what to do.

Then again, maybe there is a deeper meaning: I don’t like the idea that I have to tell adults what to do. They are adults, so I prefer to rely on them to do the right thing. Of course, adults often fail to do the right thing, but my advice is no wiser than a random generator of next steps.

But Paul is smart and his questions are worth addressing.

“Is telling adults what to do an essential function of a leader?
Or, can someone be a great leader without telling adults what to do?”
I think that telling adults what to do is an essential function of a manager. However, I think a leader can be great without telling adults what to do.

Perhaps this is splitting hairs, but I think there is a specific difference. Managers are focused on the work. Leaders are focused on the people.

And each of us is both a leader and a manager, depending on the current context.

The trick is to understand which — manager or leader — you are being in each moment. Are you managing one person, and leading another? Are you managing or leading in your current role? Are you managing the search for an answer, but leading the way to the next question?

Wait. Perhaps that is the answer. Managers offer answers. Leaders offer questions.

And Paul also asked:

“Did this cause your starting — or was it the effect of owning — a business?
I’m wondering if this is an inherent value or a learned value.”
Yes, it’s both. I’ve never liked telling adults what to do. I daydream too much. I forget what we’re doing. I forget what I asked you to do. In the end, I don’t like — and you don’t like! — when I tell adults what to do.

Owning a company confirmed my dislike — and immediately made me an ineffective manager. The team was effective in spite of my management, not because of my management.

But I am sometimes a good leader. Good. Not great. Good, because there are some things I am happy to do with adults.

I’m Happy To Encourage Adults.
I was trained in high school as a cheerleader. Beyond the uniforms and megaphones, there was always the underlying truth: I am here for you, cheering for you, encouraging you.

Cheerleading remains one of my three key skills. (The others, also learned in high school, are writing and improvisation.)

I’m Happy To Be An Adult Role Model.
Charles Barkley famously denied he was a role model. He had never intended to offer himself to public judgement beyond the basketball court.

Turns out, none of us gets to choose whether we are role models. If others are watching us to see us model any roles, then we are role models.

Parker J. Palmer wrote in The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life that good teachers teach the content, but great teachers teach the teacher as a subject — showing the students a person (the teacher) who cares enough about the content that the students are inspired to study.

Like Palmer’s teacher, managers guide the team toward the mission. And leaders help everyone understand that the mission is important enough to pursue.

I’m happy for people to watch me and judge my decisions and behaviors. Some might appeal to you; some, repel; some, baffle. Let me know if I fail you. (Here are my intentions: https://artieisaac.com/blog/2020/02/hello-i-promise/ )

I’m Happy To Ask Adults Questions.
There isn’t much you can say that I can’t question. I don’t mean to be aggressive in interrogation. I want to tell you what I don’t understand. And there isn’t much you could say that I would claim to fully understand.

I’m Happy To Correspond
This post is correspondence. I’m answering the question from Paul.

Two Notes

I don’t like telling children what to do, either, but this isn’t about my limitations as a parent.

If you want more resources, I recommend the Management Skills Blog from Tom Foster at https://managementblog.org/.