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Extraordinary leadership in the 'twilight zone'

I have an enduring memory of one of my early bosses, and the extraordinary impact that he had on me. He was young and relatively inexperienced, having only recently graduated from the management training program of the company I was working for – a large department store.

I was a casual employee, 16 years of age, and working in what was possibly the most boring area in the whole building – the lighting department. This small, brightly lit alcove was located in the furthermost reaches of the top floor where customers rarely ventured. We called it the ‘Twilight Zone’.

My colleagues and I were bored and unchallenged, while the department underperformed on a perennial basis. Into this challenging context came John, our new fresh manager. He quickly sized up the situation and made it clear that the status quo wasn’t acceptable for him, us, or the business. He then challenged us by working with us to hatch a plan to promote the department and attract customers. We were all engaged with specific tasks that harnessed our unique abilities, and over several weeks we deployed the plan.

The following month, John greeted me at the beginning of my shift and showed me the management reports that displayed the trading results. Asking me to read out the month-by-month sales comparisons for the products we had promoted, he stood alongside me and listened quietly as I noted significant uplifts in many product lines. We had even beaten our total department sales budgets for the first time in living memory! When I finished speaking, he turned to face me, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Thank you. It was your efforts and those of your teammates that made this happen. You should be proud.’ Wow. I was so chuffed I could feel my chest swell with pride and gratitude.

At that moment I realised I could make a difference, that I had potential and that I was valued, even in a small, insignificant operation on the outer boundaries of a business. This leader lifted me up, energised me, and empowered me to do it again.

I realise now that this was the extraordinary impact of leaders who passionately care about people as much they care about results.

Gerard Penna is a leadership advisor and coach to CEOs, boards, billionaires and leaders from the frontline to executive teams, working in diverse settings from desert mining camps to hi-tech start-ups, and sky-scraping boardrooms with some of our most recognisable companies. He is the creator of the powerful X Model of Leadership, author of the groundbreaking book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership, host of the The Xtraordinary Leaders Podcast and founder of Xtraordinary Leaders, a training company deeply committed to lifting the bar on leadership and leadership development.


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