Don't lead like me: What I learned from my tyrannical mentor (and Meryl Streep)

Have you seen "The Devil Wears Prada," or maybe even read the book? Perhaps you're more familiar with the saying, "a wolf in sheep's clothing?" 

It took me nearly a decade to realize that I was modeling my leadership and management style after a leader who was the mirror image of Meryl Streep in this 2006 movie. I was taught by my mentor that we must win at all costs, that money is everything, that second place is just first place loser. 

Picture this: September 2001. I was as green as can be, many would even say doe-eyed and bushy tailed. I was just starting my sales and marketing internship as an insurance carrier rep at a Fortune 500 company.

In walks my future mentor, only I didn't know it yet.

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I was immediately intoxicated by his confidence, charisma and charm. I was 20 years old, I wanted to get rich, I was very impressionable, and he knew it. And as I realized many years later, he preyed on it. Sadly, I did, too, as I soon adopted his exact characteristics of what I thought was true "leadership." But boy, was I wrong.

I worked hard, and feel that I earned the success I believe I had. I even lived the "lifestyle," as he and I would always preach to massive audiences of thousands of interns, sales reps and managers over more than a decade.

The idea of what my good friend and leader of the Talent Champions Council, Scott MacGregor, always speaks of — "people over everything" — never crossed my mind. They certainly aren't three words I'd ever heard leave the lips of my mentor.

Around 2010 to 2011, I started to slowly but surely see through his bullying and tyrannical leadership style. I started to call him out on his nonsense. That didn't go so well. I tolerated his style, but with every passing year, I got increasingly sick of his baloney.

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I did try my best to go through the chain of command and report his tyrannical behavior to the powers that be within the Fortune 500 carrier corporate hierarchy. All my complaints fell on deaf ears.

Here's what I can be proud of: I stood up for myself and realized there is more to life than the win-at-all-costs style I was taught.

Here's what I'm not so proud of: When the collective team of incredible human beings that I recruited, trained and developed started calling me out on my own personal nonsense, I immediately got defensive and thought they were the problem. I couldn't recognize that the reflection in the mirror had morphed into that of my mentor. I was the problem, not my team. By the time I realized it, I was already onto my new life as a "recovering (insurance) carrier rep."

I could share hundreds of stories and examples of how I was wronged by my mentor. My team could share tons of stories and examples of how they felt wronged by me.

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Here's the thing, though: my mentor had no right to call himself a "mentor" any more than I did, while I was attempting to lead my team. He and I weren't "mentors" or "leaders." We were managers. It took me too many years to learn the difference between a leader and manager.

Leaders live their lives and lead from a place of abundance, while managers bark orders and live their lives managing from a place of scarcity and fear.

No one forced me to listen to my mentor, though at the time and throughout the years, I did believe that listening to and following my mentor was a life-or-death situation. It was not. I chose to follow my mentor and embrace those lesser qualities that made him a fear-and-scarcity-driven manager versus the people-over-everything" leader who I had never known could exist.

With all this self-reflection, I have three areas of "thank you" I need to focus on:

First, a big shout out to my original mentor who, believe it or not, I am grateful to have had. If not for him, I truly believe I wouldn't be the abundance-driven servant leader that I have grown to become today.

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Second, a huge heartfelt thanks to the many incredible team members and friends I was supposed to be mentoring and leading over the years who I most definitely let down. I own it, and I apologize to each one of you. I would never ask you to forget how I acted and how you were wronged, but I do hope that one day you will find a place in your heart to forgive me. If I am ever able to earn the privilege of befriending you again, I will cherish it and be so very grateful – and if that is not possible, I totally respect your decision.

Third, the largest appreciation of all goes out to my wife, Megan, and our two beautiful children, Dylan and Devin. Megan, you have had my back since the beginning, and I know that you always will, even when I knew that I didn't deserve it. 

Do you believe that people can change? I do. Do you believe that everyone deserves a second chance? I do. Do you have a similar story as I shared above? I suspect, in some capacity, that you do, and I'd love to read your story, just as you've read mine.

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