In university I had a professor named Dr Fink. He was tough, brutally tough. While other professors would pat their students on the back and hand out decent grades, Dr Fink relentlessly pushed his students to become better.
Perhaps the other professors wanted us to like them, or perhaps they just didn’t want to put in the effort required to help us reach our potential. I can’t be sure either way, but what I know for a fact is that Dr Fink was committed to helping us be the best.
The first assignment I had, he returned with a grade F and told me that I could do better. I had only missed one out of sixty-six questions. At the time I thought he was being unfair, so I tried to talk my way to a higher grade.
Dr Fink, however, wasn’t open to the eloquent justification for my performance. Instead, he insisted that I had more to give. I was frustrated, but at the same time, quietly pleased that he saw me as a student with high potential.
In fact, I must admit that Dr Fink was the professor whom I and many other students had a dichotomous relationship with — going from nearly hating him because he was tough, to respecting him because of the results he helped us achieve. He was living reminder that popularity is temporary and respect is timeless.
From day one, we students knew exactly what was expected of us; his detailed syllabus explained precisely what it would take to succeed in his class. We had to make 13 peer-reviewed speeches in one semester — one per week. In addition to the anxiety of public speaking and peer evaluation, the knowledge that Dr Fink was continuously conducting evaluations of his own turned up the pressure to a whole other level.
He would sit in a booth at the back of the classroom, videotaping every speech and commenting throughout via a split channel. Each time, he would highlight what we were doing right, which usually consisted of only minimal comments, and what we were doing wrong, which generally took far longer!
When class was over, I would go into the review room with a box of tissues and listen to what he had to say. It was excruciatingly painful, but I absorbed every word and worked hard to make the improvements required. And, the work paid off. Finally, after sweating through the semester, I passed with an A.
I’ll never forget Dr Fink. He is now my favourite professor, although admittedly as a student I did not have the same affection for him. What I didn’t realise then was that he saw promise in me and worked to make it reality. In fact, he had the qualities of a truly great leader.
I never once wondered where I stood. He was painfully honest and crystal clear in his feedback, and while he was quick to tell his students when they were not up to the mark, he was just as quick to show them how to get there.
Frankly, he would be a great boss to work for if he were a corporate leader. As one of his employees, you would always know what was required to achieve the highest performance rating. Rather than just telling you where you fell short, he would clearly articulate what to do to close the gap.
He would be the type of boss who, instead of telling you why he didn’t like an idea, would tell you what was necessary to make it a great one.
Are you willing to be a “Dr Fink” to someone else? Are you willing to push your employees out of their comfort zones so they too can experience excellence?
Great leaders aren’t always popular leaders. To really help your people reach success, it might be time to sacrifice short-term popularity for long-term respect. Believe me, in the long run, you’ll be remembered for it.
Tommy Weir is CEO of EMLC Leadership Ai Lab and author of ‘Leadership Dubai Style’. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.