More Is Caught Than Taught by Steve Graves

“Hey buddy, you got a busy day?”

“Hey ma’am, how’s your day going?”

Same words. Same tone. Over and over.

On any other day, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to the all-too familiar greeting at one of my routine breakfast spots. But on this particular day, it caught my attention. Instead of being welcomed by the manager, as is usually the case, one of his employees was manning the counter. And yet, nothing had changed. Same words. Same tone. Just a different person delivering it.

Before you ask—no, I wasn’t at Chick-fil-A. I didn’t hear “my pleasure.” This was just a local bagel shop. There’s no sophisticated employee training or mandatory greetings and responses. I don’t think anyone told this kid what to say or how to say it.

So, how did his greeting end up so closely mirroring the style and delivery of his boss? My guess is that it was “caught.” I imagine that young kid has spent day after day working behind his boss, making bagels while customers are greeted. He’s heard the words repeated. He’s heard the friendly tone and seen the customers’ warm response. And, without consciously considering it, he adopted it—words, tone, everything.

To borrow a phrase from a mentor, “more is caught than taught.”

Whether at home, at work, or in ministry, our actions are informing and shaping those we lead. Your team, staff, and children are all constantly learning as they not only work with you, but perhaps more importantly, as they watch you work with others. Don’t believe me? Take a minute and think about your own behaviors, language, and habits. How many of them bear at least a faint reflection of a mentor, supervisor, or teacher along the way?

With that sobering truth in mind, consider what you might be teaching in some key areas:

Conflict – How do you respond to conflict or tense interactions? What is your initial response when you’ve been wronged, misled, or taken advantage of?

Stress – How do you react in crisis? When an onslaught comes, in what do you find strength?

Failure – How do you react when you make a mistake or when a plan doesn’t come to fruition? Do you pass blame? Rationalize? Do you learn from it? How about when someone else makes a mistake?

Priorities – What does your behavior say about your priorities? Does how you spend your time, money, and energy match up with what you’re saying is important?

Success – How do you handle success when it comes? Are you humble and grateful? Proud and entitled? Do you give credit to others or soak up the spotlight? What about when your team succeeds? Do you celebrate them? Do you express thanks?

So, how’d you do? If you’re anything like me, you’re probably experiencing some mixed emotions—pleased with how you’ve set a positive example in some areas, regretful of shortcomings in others, and more than a little relieved that your team doesn’t get to observe you every minute of every day.

Here are three quick tips to help:

Pick a Lane and Stay in It – Most leaders are a little cloudy with what they’re trying to teach others about leadership. They may know their industry, but they’ve likely never taken the time to think about the kind of leaders they want to develop and reproduce. In lieu of a plan, they tend to be guided by whatever is currently top of mind. They just finished a book about Lean management, so everything is now about eliminating waste and incremental improvement. They just heard a podcast about the power of Enneagram profiling—then it’s all about figuring out everyone’s number and how they’re motivated. You get the idea.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with self-improvement. In fact, it’s necessary to be an effective leader over the long term. But, the type of leader you want in your organization shouldn’t shift that wildly. Take the time to outline the characteristics and skills you want to develop in your leaders, and then think through how those skills and traits practically exist in your work arena. Give your team a consistent vision to chase. Don’t change what’s important.

Learn to Apologize. Do it Quick. Do it Often – If you’re a leader for any length of time, you’re going to screw up. You’re going to fall short, sometimes embarrassingly short, of the standards you’ve preached to your team. You’re going to lose your cool, drop the ball, and just flat out make a mess of things. But here’s the secret that too many leaders miss—when it comes to leadership, whether or not you mess up matters far less than how you respond. You have to own your mistakes. You have to acknowledge the disconnect between how you behaved and what you’ve said is important. Apologizing, as long as it’s sincere, is one of the most powerful things a leader can do.

Share What You Do Well – As you’ve read this, you’ve likely been thinking about the negative examples you’ve set. Fortunately, this principle holds just as true for positive behavior. Yes, your employees may be picking up some of your bad habits, but they’re also picking up your good ones … so lean in to those areas and invite your team to observe. If you excel at time management, walk your team through how you plan your day and manage your calendar. If you’re great at dealing with angry customers, let them sit in on the call the next time you’re getting yelled at. If continual learning comes easy to you, share what you’re reading, listening to, and thinking about.

So, are you pleased with what those closest to you are “catching” from you? Is there any particular attitude, behavior, or skill you need to overhaul? Are you surrounded by the right people to learn from? Do you need to expand your classroom?