Who's Writing Your Letter?

(This post goes along with Leadership Level 2, Team Asset.)

Having been in higher education for so many years, I always get a kick out of which ones of my students ask me for a letter of recommendation, because it never seems to be the ones I expect to hear from. In many cases, I get requests from students who I didn’t have much of a relationship with while we shared class time together. In fact, in some cases I'm shocked that certain students would want to ask me to write a letter on their behalf, since our time in class had made me think that some of those same students didn't care much for me or my leadership.

You may already know how it works to get a letter of recommendation written for you. When it's time to put your name into the hat for a job, a leadership position, or some other station in life, there's almost always a need for someone to recommend you in a letter, sent to those who are considering bringing you on board. But what if I told you that I'm not really the one who writes those letters of recommendation for my students? What if I told you that my job in all that is really to just play the role of secretary? You see, I don't create the content of that requested letter of recommendation. In reality it's the person who is requesting the letter who creates that part, one day at a time, starting with our first day together. I simply make observations and only then put them to paper if or when the request comes.

Let's put this in perspective for your own leadership. Are you simply wandering through the season you're in now, unconcerned about your conversations, attitudes and actions, hoping that when the time comes, someone will create some great fiction about you in a glowing letter recommending you? Or are you starting to realize that you're writing your own letter every day, with every interaction, opportunity and situation that comes across your path? Am I saying you have to be perfect? No! What I’m saying is that it helps to be aware of the way you're handling things with other people. This is especially true in relation to those who are in charge of you and especially during these early seasons of your leadership.

It may seem outdated to be concerned with things like showing up on time, following up on things you agreed to do, or being somewhere you’re supposed to be when you really don't feel like it. But can I share a leadership secret with you? It's this: no matter how smart, talented, charming or attractive you may be, if you can't be depended upon by those who lead you, then you really don’t want them putting their honest feelings about you on paper when it matters most. Some letters are gracious and dance around those issues, while others are brutally honest and tell the real story.

Some are thinking right now, “Tim, you're just encouraging us to be kiss-ups and play teacher's pet with the boss. I refuse to be dishonest or to play games with the people I work with.” In reality I'm not suggesting any of that. What I'm suggesting is that you become the kind of person you would want to be in charge of, especially if that person's performance somehow affected YOUR success as the supervisor. The truth is that your leadership is always bigger than you are, affecting many more people than you realize. Keeping that in mind helps us keep our focus off of ourselves and the selfish behavior that can ruin our leadership effectiveness. I encourage you to start today to give your best effort right here and right now, so that the letter you’re contributing to becomes all you need it to be when the time is right.

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.
–Romans 13:3 (NIV)