Three Steps of Leadership

(edit: updated 31 Jan 2018)

MeDadUnknownLocationI am the oldest of five children, who grew up in central NY. Our father John R. Tenney was a successful public servant. He retired as the senior judge in the New York State Supreme Court in 2003.

He taught us a lot about leadership. He had a lot of experience at it. He was the person in the group that everyone turned to when things got tough. I admired him for it and aspired to be like him. I’ve attempted to follow his footsteps ever since. “Those are big shoes to fill” people would tell me. “Don’t be disappointed if you aren’t as successful as your father.” Really annoying, isn’t it?

In my early 60s now, I can look back and have a much better perspective of what my dad went through. He wasn’t “born” a leader. Who is, really? Once the covering is peeled back and a leader’s life is studied, three steps emerge. Before we cover the three steps however, there are some rules to lead by that must be discussed.

Preamble: Rules to Lead By

Norman Schwarzkopf was a great leader. As a decorated 4 star general who led our armed forces in Desert Shield and later in Desert Storm, his record speaks for itself. I was fortunate to be there when he related some points of leadership to a large group in the Atlanta “Georgia Dome” in the early 1990s, and the last two are very pertinent here:

Rule 13: When in Command, Take Charge
As a colonel in the 1970s, he had been left in command of the US Forces in Viet Nam. As the general he replaced left, Norm asked him, “How do I command?” The general told him “Easy. Rule 13. When in Command Take Charge.” It sounds simple but does history record any examples of great leaders who talked to everyone to “get the feel of the group” before making every decision? Norm said you still have to delegate responsibility and listen to the troops but you have to be in charge.

The next question he asked the general was, “but that involves making decisions. How do I make good decisions?” So the general gave him rule 14:

Rule 14: Do What’s Right
Seems obvious doesn’t it but how do you know what’s right? Norm didn’t have to ask that question, because he knew, and related to us, “You know what’s right. You always know. Inside, you know. Sometimes the right thing is not what the public wants you to do. Sometimes it’s not the popular thing to do. Do it anyway.”

Sometimes Doing the Right Thing is different than Doing the Popular Thing

Sometimes Doing the Right Thing is different than Doing the Popular Thing

This struck a chord with me because I had heard it before. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was nearly an exact quote of our father’s lesson to our family: “You can never go wrong by doing the right thing. Just because a decision is popular, does not automatically make it right.”

Okay, with these rules in our quiver, now it’s time for three steps of Leadership

Step 1: First Be a Follower

This step is the one people try to skip the most. 95% of business start-ups fail and this is certainly a contributing factor. There is no substitute for experience in the field. Before you can lead, you have to know what it feels like being led. This can prevent poor leadership decisions in the future. It’s also a great place to learn from others’ mistakes, as you don’t have enough time to make them all yourself.

Dad had some good people to follow. One which comes to mind is his father in law, Robert C. Roberts. Bob Roberts was a powerful figure in NY politics, although he never held an office. He was the owner of the Mid-York Press and editor of the Mid-York Weekly. His business and journalism brought him in to contact with many other powerful people in NY. He took Dad under his wing, so to speak, and introduced him to other leaders from Albany to Buffalo. Dad’s first act of leadership was following Bob Roberts.

My personal lesson in this came as a new airline pilot. I started as a “First Officer” – or Second in Command. For the first time since my training was completed I was not the boss of the aircraft. It was a learning experience. I had assumed that being a small plane pilot would transition automatically to handling a passenger filled airliner. Huh, bad assumption. Captains quickly took steps to straighten me out. It was an uncomfortable learning season for me!

Step 2: Blaze a Trail

At some point, it is time to stop following and to go off in a different direction. This is that “moment of truth” where the risk becomes a reality. It takes a “leap of faith” to go off in a new direction, without the safety and security of the known.

Many new business owners skip to this step or at least go a little early. This may lead to failure, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as most lessons are best learned from failure. However, success rates are higher when the appropriate amount of time is spent in step 1.

This step can be lonely. When you are off doing something no one else is doing, it stands to reason that you will have fewer people around you. Hence the term, trailblazing.

Sometimes this step is very discouraging. A few years back my pastor identified me as a “church leader” and I was shocked. I approached him later and said “How can you call me a leader? Who am I leading? Look behind me, there’s nobody there.” His answer encouraged me, “But you go places no one else will go. That’s part of being a leader. Give it time, once people see you going where no one else goes, they will eventually follow you.”

I worked for an insurance company for a while before starting my current company. The experience was very helpful in getting started.

Step 3: Encourage and Develop Other Leaders

This step sounds like the directions on shampoo: “Help others with steps 1 and 2, rinse and repeat”. A leader teaches others how to be leaders and doesn’t worry if they get ahead of them. Many leaders frequently fall back to step one when the mission and goal is better led by someone else.

The purpose of leading is to beget leaders. The world needs more leaders. Without leaders in all walks of life we would be no where, advancing to no place. All leaders, past, present and future, are at one of these three steps.

We sell franchises now. Obviously, developing leaders is an integral part of our business.

Necessary Talent: Patience
It takes time. Leaders are like a fine wine, better when aged and seasoned. Experience counts. Sometimes you make it to the front just by outlasting your opponents. I remember when my dad was first elected to the Supreme Court in 1968, they gave him a license plate for his car that said “JSC-272”, indicating that he was #272. I asked him “so Dad, there must be like 500 judges right?” He said “No Will, there are 272. I’m last!”

We would get excited each year to see his new plate arrive to see how far he had moved up in seniority. First year it was 259, then 237 and so on. Each year, he became more and more a leader in his field. At his retirement party in 2003, I took this picture in the parking lot of the Yahnundasis Country Club:

It was upgraded from JSC to "Supreme Court" but as you can see, our dad retired at #1.

It was upgraded from JSC to “Supreme Court” but as you can see, our dad retired at #1.


From a personal view, I can see this happening with my brother and sisters. In our family, our dad taught us to be leaders. He learned it from his mentors. If you take a look at us five kids, you can see that the leadership either paid off or it’s starting to happen.

John W Tenney (me): Owner and lead agent for EmployerNomics, national franchise and PEO Pros, a P&C agency in Orlando, FL
Robert W Tenney: CEO and Chairman of the Board for The Mid-York Press and Mid-York Digital
Claudia L Tenney: US Congressional Representative for NY22 district
Jane E Lewis: Independent Business Owner in Vail, CO
Julia C Tenney: Self marketed graphic artist in Boston, MA

Our dad died in 2004, but I think he would be proud of his teachings if he could see how we are all doing now.