It was the beginning of summer, 1987. I was 16 years old and looking for a job. I had previously worked in a bakery both after school and during the previous summer. While the smells were divine, I hated being cooped up all day when there was sun to be soaked up. A friend of the family introduced me to the superintendent at a nearby country club, a man named Larry. The idea of working in the wide-open space of the golf course was extremely appealing and this eventually was my first real introduction to leadership in a work setting. Over the next 8 years, I would graduate high school, earn a college degree, and work for 4 bosses before eventually launching my own company. Each one of those bosses taught me critical lessons about leadership, and I draw from those experiences and memories to this day.
Larry was a straight shooter. He’d tell you the good and the bad without reservation or sugar-coating. He occasionally lost his temper, but this was rare and it only happened when circumstances were truly bad. If you worked hard for him, he helped you however he could. If you didn’t, he didn’t either. But above all, you always knew where you stood. He didn’t seem to have much Emotional Intelligence. But he was honest, predictable and trustworthy. What struck me most was Larry’s willingness to discuss and explain the nuances of golf course management even with a 16 year old like me. As he helped me understand the big picture of what we were doing, he also increased his own expert power. I didn’t see him only as a manager barking orders. I understood that this was a person who had a deep understanding of a topic that was far more complicated than I had previously understood. I eventually decided to follow his career path, attending Penn State in the Turfgrass Science program in order to eventually become a Golf Course Superintendent.
While attending Penn State, I’d return for the summers to work for Larry. One year, he informed me that I would not be welcome back, but only because I needed to get some experience at a different club. So he made a phone call and got me an internship with an old friend of his at a beautiful club near Pittsburgh, PA. That’s when I met Ken and was introduced to a new style of leadership. Ken was much more introverted, quiet and somewhat nerdy. He listened more than he spoke. He never lost his temper or raised his voice and you often didn’t really know where you stood with him. There was an uncertainty that went with working for Ken. One day, you’d return to the maintenance facility in mid-afternoon ready to punch out and go home for the day, only to have him off-handedly mention that we now needed to go fertilize all the greens (at least a 3 hour task). But Ken also displayed an attentiveness to employee emotional states. If someone seemed on edge or angry, he could calmly chat with the person for a bit to get them in a better mindset. He’d give you a day off just when you were getting worn down by the long hours. He asked questions and he listened carefully to your answers. In many ways, Ken was the polar opposite of Larry. Both had their strengths and weaknesses as leaders.
After working for Ken for one summer, I was offered a summer job at the Penn State Turfgrass Research facilities where a man named George was in charge. George encompassed the best characteristics of both Larry and Ken without exhibiting any of the negatives. He was personable, but not overly familiar. He let you know where you stood with him, but he asked how you were doing and he truly listened. He challenged you but didn’t push you to a breaking point. When you made a mistake, he went over it with you firmly but fairly and made sure that it was a learning experience, not just a screw-up. All the students in the program truly looked up to George and we all vied for his favor in hopes of getting a recommendation for a high-quality job after graduation. In the course of that summer, I witnessed him draw from all 6 bases of power (referent, expert, legitimate, reward, coercive and informational) in ways that were always appropriate to the situation, even though most people in his position would have rested on Legitimate power as their source for motivating subordinates. A few years after I graduated, George passed away from a rare form of cancer. I sure hope he left this world with a good understanding of the impact he had on so many young people like me.
After graduation and a brief stint at a country club, I actually opted to leave the golf course business and pursue a path towards entrepreneurship. I took a job at a local lawn care franchise that was owned and run by perhaps the most colorful and least effective leaders I’ve ever dealt with. John ruled with an iron fist and seemed only to know about legitimate and coercive power. He was arrogant, demanding, and unpredictable. The rare compliment was received by his employees like a sip of water while dying in the desert. It felt wonderful for that brief moment, but was nowhere near enough. During my 6 month stint at his company, I watched close to 30 employees come and go (for about 10 positions), either by quitting or being fired for relatively innocuous and perceived infractions. But the biggest lesson I learned was that this type of management is extraordinarily limiting. If someone had the tenacity to stay with this company for more than a few years, they eventually left and started their own competitive business. Nobody stayed long, so John could never grow the company much larger than about 20 employees at any given time. And in the process, he spawned most of his own competition, which just ate away at his potential success.
After calling my own shots for a quarter century, I can look back and see the influence of all 4 of these leaders in my current style. In some cases, I’m actively trying to emulate the best of them. In others, I’m cautiously avoiding their bad habits. But I’m glad to have had the diverse exposure to these four individuals. I suspect that as a result I’ve had more success in my career than I ever otherwise would have had.
Northouse, P. G. (2019). Chapter 1. In Leadership: Theory and practice. Los Angeles: Sage.