How My Kindergarten Teacher Ruined Me as a Leader…and How I Fixed It

My kindergarten teacher ruined me as a leader for nearly twenty-five years.

It’s not her fault. She meant well when she told me in class one day that if I brought cookies to class, I must bring enough for everyone. I’d only brought a few extra for my friends.

She meant well when she essentially said, “what you do for one, you must do for all.” But that is terrible leadership advice.

Kindergarten Leadership

“What you do for one, you must do for all” might work in kindergarten, but it’s terrible leadership advice. (Tweet That) | Share this Graphic on Pinterest | Share on Facebook

At an early age I learned that if I could not do for all, then I should do for none.

Why should only a few friends get to enjoy a cookie along with me when the others must suffer in salivating agony? The problem was that I could not afford, at the age of five, to buy cookies for twenty kids. I barely had enough to buy the few that I bought.

So, no one got to enjoy the extra cookies (except me). Not my friends. Not the others in class. No one.

That taught me one of the worst leadership lessons of my life. Unfortunately I carried it with me for the next twenty-five years through numerous leadership roles.

Doing for none what I could do for some

When I first took on a leadership role at the age of twenty-six, as I have documented many times, I was dramatically unqualified and unprepared.

To make matters worse, I still carried that ridiculous lesson from kindergarten with me.

If I could not buy cookies for everyone in the class, I could not bless anyone. If I could not do something for all, I would do for none. It became ingrained in me.

If I could not take everyone on my team to lunch each week, no one went to lunch with me.

If I didn’t have the budget to get everyone a new computer, no one got one.

If I didn’t have the time to hold one-on-one meetings with my entire team of fifteen people, I did them with no one, not even my top performers.

I rationalized these ridiculous decisions by saying things like:

“If I get a new computer for Joe, then Sally will hate hers. She’ll be hounding me for a new one. Who knows, maybe she’ll even threaten to quit.” (I know, my inner thoughts were a little on the dramatic side)

Or this doozy:

“If I take Sam out to lunch this week, then Mike will feel left out. He’ll begin to wonder if he’s doing something wrong. He might even slip into a deep depression and…” Okay that last part was over the top, but you get the point.

I said things like, “One day we will have the budget to…”

One day we will have the money.

One day I will have the time.

One day, one day, one day.

That day may never come.

I gave up on the leader I knew I could be all because of “one day.” I continued to make excuses, rationalize, and get nothing done. If everyone couldn’t make progress, no one would.

What a pathetic way to lead.

Doing for some what I can’t do for all

I finally changed a few years ago. I came to grips with the fact that I will never be able to do everything for everyone on my team. I will never have the budget to do everything or the time to spend with each of them that I want.

But I can do for some what I can’t do for all. I have Andy Stanley to thank for the concept. He taught me that I could change my team (and the world) by helping one person at a time.

I can invest deeply in some team members’ lives.

I can take one person to lunch every month.

I can do one-on-one meetings with the top performers.

I can even get one new computer every month.

Some team members got special training. Some got a new phone headset. Some got gifts for a job well done.

Everyone was the better for it.

Key takeaway: Don’t do for none what you can do for some…or even one. Do what you can when you can to benefit or bless others.

Two Questions: 

Question: What old lessons from childhood have hurt your leadership? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Question: What can you do for one that you can’t do for all? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Jeff Franklin

    I’ve felt the same way Matt. If I couldn’t do something for all my kids (6) I did for none. Now, if I have 30 minutes, I spend quality time with one.

  • LOVE THIS, Andy Stanley helped me with this argument. I so hate the idea that every one get’s a trophy even if you come in last place. Ahhhh man this stuff gets me fired up.

    As to your questions, from childhood, I heard, “Your really not smart enough”-later in life I found out I just learned differently than most of my class mates.

    Recently I let one our team members fill up on fuel from our tank, and I wished i could of done it for all our staff.

    • Good for you…doing for one what you wish you could do for all! Love it brother.

  • When I first read the preview to this post, I immediately thought of Andy Stanley. This is a great message that needs to get out there.

  • You nailed it, Matt. Exactly right! It’s just impossible otherwise.

    Giving is selective and specific. Otherwise, it loses its effectiveness and power.

    • So true Skip. I really didn’t think about that. When you do everything for everyone it does sort of cheapen it a little.

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