The Old School Leader: Dirt Under Nails Required, Polish Optional

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Construction  workers having lunch


Give him a pass, he’s Old School!  Watch out, he’s old school!  What do you expect, he’s old school!

And multiple other spins on this saying.  Sometimes “Old School” has a negative connotation, sometimes there is a respectful deference.  Sometimes it’s generational in context, when the young guns coming out of college, now have to interact with peers with 20+ years of experience.  Generational differences are intriguing, and also provide for great workplace entertainment!

The Old School vs. New School is a phenomena that is all around us, whether in in business, your local community groups, your neighborhood.  If its not direct AGE difference, there are mind-set differences driven by Old School/New School Mind-Sets.

Here’s my take:

I view Old School as nothing but ROCK SOLID.

A respect for FUNDAMENTALS.  HARD WORK.  I think about Dirt under the fingernails, which comes from being close to the real work.

I think about the Store Manager who is not afraid to pick garbage off the floor or stock a shelf when needed.  They are equally as comfortable doing the real work as managing the work.  In other words, they are described as a DOER, not the Prima Donna.  Why is the DOER critical?  Simple:  Nothing demotivates a workplace more than the manager that uses delegation as a means of efficiency (getting it “off their plate”) vs developing the people they lead.  Both can be accomplished simultaneously, but the developing side of delegation must be more important.

The old school LEADER earns respect from the people they lead, because of the example they set.  They simply wouldn’t ask their teams to do anything they either have not done, or would not do themselves.

In business, names like Jack Welch (GE), Herb Kelleher (co-founder of Southwest Airlines) and Sam Walton (Founder of Wal-Mart) come to mind.  I’m sure many others come to your mind, and I’d love to hear them with your comments.

The Old School leader has ingrained in their DNA “fundamentals that matter.”

They respect and honor what works, what is proven, yet they never stop learning new techniques to “Sharpen the Saw” as the late, great Stephen Covey wrote about in THE 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE

This is NOT about that rare “old dog that is able to learn new tricks.”  It’s about RESULTS, because that is what matters.

In business there are personal traits that are closely linked with great leadership.

For me, Old School traits are at the top of the list.  I also think HUSTLE.  And OPTIMISM.

Have you ever seen out of this world results from a lazy pessimist?

Of course not!

Give me someone with dirt under his/her nails, that sees potential, where others see road blocks, that has rock solid old school fundamentals.  There’s the person that will generate results….and make people better in the process.

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  1. My take on Old School vs. New School is that it is about culture and process. No doubt, rolling up your selves and getting your hands dirty is a lost art…in many circles today. However, true start-ups epitomize the dirty finger nail work ethic.
    Slightly in jest, but also trying to underscore ‘old’ culture and process can slow down ‘new’ business:
    Answer these questions and add up the points:
    Does your company:
    1 Not have a casual Friday? -3
    2 Have some folks still wear suits & ties in the office? -3
    3 Have folks that carry briefcases? -3
    4 Have bosses that leave written notes on your desk? -3
    5 Have bosses that leave voicemail broadcasts? -3
    6 Employ sales people that wear blue blazers? -2
    7 Have an informal interviewing process? -2
    8 Plan quarter to quarter? -2
    9 Schedule one hour meetings multiple times a week? -2
    10 Only have women administrative assistants? -3
    11 Ask you to fax certain documents? -2
    12 Have golf as primary major meeting entertainment? -1
    13 Not provide free snacks or non-coffee drinks? -1
    14 Use Microsoft Office 2007 or Lotus Notes? -2
    15 Not allow ‘working remote’ at least some times? -2
    16 Make you print out and sign expense reports? -1
    17 Have bosses that make you print out “the deck”? -2
    18 Provide BlackBerry mobile phones? -2
    19 Powerpoint everything? -2
    20 Celebrate birthdays but not work anniversaries? -1
    21 Use corporate corded desk phones? -1
    22 Block Facebook? -1
    23 Have bosses that talk about gut feelings? -1
    0 Your company is hip, cool, progressive, and oh so 2013!
    1 – 3 Your company has some old habits lingering but you’re still in the 2010’s!
    4-12 Your company is a laggard, let some folks retire, and you won’t be stuck in 2002!
    13-21 Your company thinks Bill Clinton is still president, tell HR it’s not 1996 anymore!
    22-32 Whoa! Your company probably is ok with harassment and doing coke lines off the wood desk like it’s 1985!
    33-41 Holy Shit! Your company must allow smoking in meetings and have electric typewriters like it’s 1974!
    42-45 No Fucking Way! Your company is so backwards it does not deserve to be in business! No joke.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Dean! I chuckled at the survey “evaluation” and certainly took it (will not disclose the score to protect the innocent!). What your questions poke at really are at the heart of the matter…..what worked 15 years ago, particularly in the culture space really should look different today. Even more so 10 years from now as the younger baby boom generation begins to enter the golden years, many of which hold key leadership positions in the economy.

  2. I can totally relate to this as the above describes my old boss. She was always there getting her hands dirty with her team and worked hard (and yelled a lot) with them to make it work. I doubt she (and her team) would have been as successful if it had not been for her old school mentality, combined with modern day business tactics. Many were scared of her because of her endless screaming and tirades. Interestingly enough, the most successful ones were the ones who stood up to her. Successful people want and need to be challenged. What is the point of having someone who constantly agrees with you!?

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences Ginny! Great story on your old boss, sounds like they certainly lacked a bit of the “polish” that some may have appreciated but certainly earned respect overall. Could not agree with you more, “Yes People” provide very little value and great leaders EXPECT to be challenged!

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