The Worst Leadership Lesson I Ever Learned, I Learned in Kindergarten

As a leader, you must do for one what you want to do for all.

The Worst Leadership Lesson

Leaders, don’t do for none what you can do for one. Do what you can when you can to benefit your team.
(Click to Tweet)

My kindergarten teacher meant well when she said, “Matthew, if you bring cookies, you must bring enough for everyone.” But that is horrible leadership advice.

I simply wanted to bring an extra cookie to Mrs. Taylor’s class for my friend Brooke one day and you’d think I brought a live scorpion. She and other teachers taught me at an early age that if I could not do for all, I could do for none. I carried that into my leadership for years.

If I could not afford, at age five, to buy cookies for all twenty kids in the class, I could not be a blessing to Brooke.

If I could not do something for everyone on the team, I would do it for no one.

If I did not have the budget to get everyone something, no one got it.

I could not take the whole team to lunch each week, so no one went.

I didn’t have the time to do one-on-one meetings with ten people, so I did them with no one, not even my top performers, who I should have been preparing for leadership.

So I did what any red-blooded American male does; I made excuses and used the eternal rationalization of “one day.” One day we would have the budget to buy everyone a new phone headset. One day I would have enough time to do one-on-one meetings with everyone.

One day.

Over time, I resigned myself to this pitiful fate. I was a shell of the leader I knew I could be.

I finally broke free of Mrs. Taylor’s death grip on my leadership abilities a few years ago. I started doing for one what I wanted to do for all.

I went to lunch when time permitted with one team member.

I created a bonus structure for one team member that incentivized him to break every record imaginable in our email sales.

I gave gifts on an individual basis.

Some team members had newer computers, some older. One had a wireless headset, while the others had none. One got special training to succeed me while the others got none.

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 your team.

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.

Do You Want to Know My Number One Leadership Tool?
Find out what it is here.

Free Affiliate Training from Matt McWilliams
  • This post is near and dear to my heart because I have been both a teacher and a leader. You’re so spot on!!! It would be like me being a parent and buying my son and husband a Cinderella activity set for Christmas because my daughter loves that and she’s getting one, so everyone in the family should get one too. Being fair does not mean treating everyone the SAME but giving them what they need to succeed. Some people love gift cards and some hate them… Some people like eating lunch with the boss and some don’t! Some people are in charge of sales and others are in IT… you can’t treat them all the same. Great lesson. Thanks for sharing!

    • I love this Lily: It would be like me being a parent and buying my son and husband a Cinderella activity set for Christmas because my daughter loves that and she’s getting one, so everyone in the family should get one too.

      That sums it up!

  • Wait in line. Sometimes that is important, but it is usually just a time waster.

  • Good advice, Matt. We can’t please all the people all the time. As a leader, I think one-on-one time is essential with each member of your team.

  • Great point, Matt! Not saying that this kind of teaching promotes Socialism (well, I guess I did say it). This idea squelches the generosity that we should all have.

    The idea that there are no losers and everyone wins is a terrible thing! Life is not this way! Sure, encourage those that don’t do well because it is important that they at least tried (even if they didn’t do well), but we need to show that there is a reward for being the best and that those rewards are limited.

    • I’ve often said that if everyone gets a trophy, then all of them are meaningless. The league could save the money, give everyone an extra juice box after the games and we’d all be happy.

      In many cases, this isn’t about who is best or worst or in between. Sometimes it’s just about finding the time for one person each day.

  • Yes! Being “fair” over treating people as individuals leaves a lot of people suffering needlessly. It also becomes the excuse for us to not do anything (because we can’t do it for all). Good stuff, Matt. Thanks.

    • Thanks Jason!

      “Fair” is a word most leaders should eliminate from their vocabulary. Not in the interest of being mean, but in the interest of helping one when helping all is truly impossible.

  • I may not be able to build houses for everyone who needs one in Guatemala. I may not be able to build houses for everyone in the town of Xenacoj where I served last summer. But I can help to build one which I did last summer. Now, I’m contemplating a return visit to the same town next summer, and I’m starting to dream about building another house (along with my blogging community). It starts with one! (Thanks for the reminder, Matt!)

    • One at a time eventually adds up to “everyone” especially when you get other people involved!

      Do for one, inspire someone, now you can do for two…and a movement grows.

      If I do for one salesperson and his sales increase, I now have the money to do for four, then sixteen, and so on.If I inspire one team member, he inspires another and suddenly we have three inspirational team members.

      • Sounds like Pay It Forward. (Great movie by the way.)

  • Lulu

    A bad lesson I learned from kindergarten was it was more important to do things like everyone else with everyone else, than to do it by yourself and at your pace. I have the report card to prove it. “Lulu refused to move on to the next activity until she has completed the task at hand.” (Rough quote as I don’t have the actual document in front of me – but the sentiment is there.) All my childhood I then tried to conform, to please, to be like everyone else. This caused conflict within and without – as I was not like everyone else.

    After I shook the dust of grade 12 off and moved on the work place and into further education, I found that very quality that had been stiffled was now the very characteristic that lent to my success. Only for example, not for boasting, I received many awards in college and had many job offers. It seems that life has rewarded me for the very thing that I was chastised for at the tender age of 5.

    In retrospect how can such a characteristic be considered wrong? It really wasn’t. It was an inconvenience for the teacher. She had a child that could already read and write. She had a child who was not easily bored nor distracted. She had a child who thought naps were a waste of time when there is so much to do. And instead of nurturing the gift she forced me to conform. (I am not dishing on teachers – it is a thankless role so often.)

    What a good lesson, albeit painful one, to learn. It certainly bodes well for anyone in any sort of leadership to massage the potential out of others, even if it is not what you wanted. Sometimes we only look for what we want to see. Even more so as Christian leaders – as God is the giver of the gifts.

    Another wish from my childhood school days is that someone taught me to spell. A thorn in my flesh! :-)

    • “Lulu refused to move on to the next activity until she has completed the task at hand.”

      The crazy thing is that most employers would kill today to have someone with that kind of focus. Most people have shiny object syndrome.

      It’s sad that your teacher did that. I hope she meant well at least.

      • Lulu

        I’m sure the teacher meant well as I’m confident my stubborn streak may have been captured in the “refusal”. Some things never change!! :-)

  • Pingback: Top Commenters and Comments of December 2012 | Matt McWilliams | Failing Forward()