I always thought my teachers in life would be loving and generous. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I thought I’d have gurus at whose feet I could sit, soaking up wisdom and knowledge of the universe, becoming enlightened myself.

After enough rough times, however, I realized that my teachers didn’t wear flowing orange or white robes and sit in the lotus position. My teachers were bad bosses, difficult work environments, and disappointments.

Sometimes bosses and work environments started out great and turned a little sour over time. The lesson there? Usually, I had changed and grown. In learning new skills and developing new maturity, I outgrew my current situation. Unfortunately, I was so deeply immersed in the change, I had little if any awareness of how much I had changed. All I knew was that my boss and some co-workers became incredibly frustrating. Did they just become stupid?

It’s clear now that my expectations for my boss and co-workers had shifted, often becoming higher. That makes sense, when I realize that I was playing a bigger game with better skills. I naturally wanted to play with others who had similar skills. My frustration stemmed from two sources:

  1. There were people who couldn’t play the bigger game because they really didn’t have the skill; and
  2. There were people who had the skills, I just couldn’t recognize them. Consequently, I assumed they didn’t have them.

My arrogance conveyed itself to others, who then didn’t really want to play with me, either. Caught up as I was in my own circumstances, I rarely spared a thought for how others were doing or what situations they were coping with well beyond my ken or awareness.

That was an important lesson for me. I needed to stop assuming I had all the answers and all the information. I discovered the power of questions – asking people about themselves and the challenges they face. I also started to look at how people, especially bosses, handled situations and thought about how I might do it differently. They were my “negative powers of example” – the “how not to do it” teachers.

Those lessons helped me own my own abilities and also understand why someone might do what they do. I learned to respect our differences and developed some compassion for people differently and perhaps less able than me. This made it possible for me to consciously choose how to handle a situation. It made me ready to lead others.