Leadership on L Plates

Black and white photography with L Plates collage

There is a framed motivational poster hanging in the reception of the dentist. It reads, ‘Being positive in a negative situation is not naive. It’s leadership.’, in what looks like Lucida Calligraphy script, a font from my primary school heyday that I can’t help but look back with deep-seeded regret and disgust.

While lovely in sentiment, the poster is equally horrifying in the delivery of pink text on a lime green parchment. What it lacks in design know-how and subtle sophistication however, this poster surely makes up for in warm and fuzzies.

Being positive in a negative situation is not naive. It is leadership. I like it. Whilst I’m a little confused as to what a poignant leadership poster is doing at the dentist, I resonate with the quote more than I do the fifty billion motivational ones I saw on my casual Instagram scroll this morning.

Before my name is called and I sign the next 20 minutes of my life over to attempting to converse with a stranger who hovers inches from my wide open-mouthed, drool-covered face, I jot this quote down in the notes of my phone.

As a young leader, I am forever thrown into the burning pits of business deliberation and somewhat heated situations that require me to rise up, throw a positive spin on the situation, offer a quick dad joke and get on with building the correct solution to the problem at hand. And I know I’m not alone in this wash-rinse-repeat cycle. For the last few years of building a business I’ve had to learn hard and fast what it means to become a leader, and a good one at that. I’ve had to redefine what leadership means to me, and work out the type of ‘boss-lady’ I want to become, all the while figuring everything out on the fly. A young, rapidly growing business doesn’t grant you the luxury of time to sit and meditate for weeks on end about whether you’d prefer to embody a leadership style more akin to Martin Luther King or Kanye West. Often, it’s within the split second in the face of fire that you need to decide, and you better make the right decision, let me tell you.

One thing that each of our new team members learns in their first few days, is that when you join the Smack Bang Gang, whether you’re the CEO, or just started yesterday, everyone has a seat AND a steering wheel on our bus. We threw hierarchy out the window long ago and to be honest, no-one misses it. We conduct regular brainstorms (full of good humour, hot beverages and sometimes clear outcomes), where each person can throw their two-bob in without risk of feeling silly or copping sideway glances. At the end of the day, we’re all a little weird, and our ideas a little outlandish. And this is the kind of leadership style we like to practice.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE taking days off just as much as the next business owner, but I didn’t step into a position of leadership to obtain power, or to compete, be the best or have a team ‘underneath’ me. I came to be in this position because I love working with a collective of inspiring, talented and damn right amazing creatives. I love pulling together a family and ensuring that everyone is able to be the best that they can be here in our little studio. I have a passion for facilitating growth and greatness in myself and others.

So, in my rather limited, super on-the-fly, extra I-often-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing experience of leadership on my L-plates, here are a couple of thoughts I’ve picked up behind the wheel.

    I want to instil a culture of rising each other up. I have always told my team that I want each of them to put the other out of a job. Teach your junior everything you know so that they can do your job. We rise by lifting one another up. All I can think about now is the mid-2000s Westlife version of ‘You Raise Me Up’. I know, I know, and I am sorry.
    To me, leadership is not about power, it is about kindness. It’s about caring for others, and being the nicest person in the room when you are the sole witness of one of your team almost tumbling headfirst down a staircase, yet decide to simply share a consolatory wink and quiet laugh rather than outing them to the entire office.Showing high sensitivities for others in social situations, having empathy, putting yourself in the shoes of others — these are all highly invaluable traits of leadership. Know that people are different and have different needs, so tailor your approach the other person (again, it’s not about you, it’s about them).
    There’s no denying that a business owner has to make some seriously tough decisions on a regular basis. A good leader approaches these decisions with a concern for the collective and makes informed decisions based on the overall health and wellbeing of the team as a whole. Which makes it hard — you care for the individuals within the team, but at the end of the day, you make the decisions based on the overall unit.
    Leaders create a safe space where everyone feels safe and valued, where everyone feels like they can not only be themselves, but be their best selves. What I’ve worked hardest to achieve at Smack Bang, is establish a culture of love, respect, kindness and trust. Apart from the dodgy stairs out the back of our old studio and well below standard railing heights, I’ve always made it a (mentally) safe working environment. So that means that giving and receiving feedback comes from a good place — a place of kindness and respect for each other. We simply just want the best for each other.
    When your team relies on you as a leader, you need to be a good role model, even on the mornings when you smash your phone into smithereens as you try to pick up that 7th bag (which, of course, is the reason your spine is so out of alignment), juggle a coffee thermos under your chin and keep your dog from bursting onto the street and after the passing traffic. When life is having a particularly shit moment, you still have to rock up with a smile on your face. You can’t let your team down. Even when you want to whinge about every single thing that is going on in your life, you can’t. You need to set the example of positivity. Because the end goal is everyone’s individual well being and the team’s harmony. At Smack Bang we always say that stress is contagious. If you bring your stress, your team will catch it… and it turns out that is the opposite of leadership.
    In our team we have a running joke about telling someone if they have a booger in their nose or food stuck in their teeth. Telling the truth does that person a favour. Leadership is like telling someone they’ve got a little something that could do with adjustment. If someone is producing mediocre work, or rocking up with a stinking attitude, we have a culture where flags are raised and people are told (in kind, considerate and closed-door situations) that they might need to grab a toothpick and remove yesterday’s lunch from their two front teeth, and maybe brush their teeth more often.
    The other thing to note is that I don’t believe in teacher-student relationships. I believe that we are all students. For instance, just because my partner is a horticulturalist and knows every plant and its botanical name off by heart, that doesn’t mean he is the teacher and I am the student. I will often point things out to him about the shape of a leaf or the design of a tree; we are both students and we both have something to teach and share with one another.When I give feedback, I keep this firmly in mind. My goal is to workshop a solution with the individual, rather than look down at them over my spectacles, chalk-duster clenched between fists. Sure, I’ll have ideas and thoughts and opinions, but I’d prefer to then ask questions and do a little listening myself. On the flip side, when I am receiving feedback, I do my best to keep my student hat firmly planted on my head while recognising and respecting that the person issuing feedback is also a student like me. That little gem gives me perspective, helps me respect others better, and ultimately is an extremely useful leadership lesson.

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