Center for Organizational Leadership

Empowering Effective Leaders

When You Know Better, Do Better

By Rachel Tirhi, JD

Attorney at Little Mendelson P.C. and Instructor for the MAOL

Whether you are familiar with the great Dr. Maya Angelou or not, you likely have heard of and been influenced by her work. A most unlikely candidate for leadership, Angelou grew up in poverty in Arkansas in the 1930s and was a victim of abuse and systemic discrimination. But the story doesn’t end there. Angelou went on to become a world-renowned writer. In the 1960s, she was an editor for The Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, and for the African Review in Ghana.  She went on to become the first black female director in Hollywood and later won a Tony award for her performance in “Roots .

In addition to these accomplishments and accolades, including recognition by numerous U.S. presidents, her legacy continues through her frequently quoted poems and words of wisdom (Google search “Maya Angelou quotes,” and be ready to be inspired!). One of my favorite often-quoted statements by Angelou is this:

"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."

In my career, I had the privilege of working for another great leader who, like Angelou, fought against the odds to become a well-respected and influential woman in our community (perhaps more about her in another blog). While working under her leadership, and as she prepared me for my own leadership role, she frequently provided me with guidance and constructive criticism followed by Angelou’s instructions: “Now that you know better, Rachel, do better.”

As I have pondered these instructions many times over the years, I have come to realize the following:

  1. Leadership is intentional. If you desire and have been called to influence others and make impactful change, be purposeful in attaining the knowledge you need to be the leader you want to be. Read the leadership books, observe the leaders you respect and, perhaps most importantly, find ways to practice putting your learning into action.
  2. Leaders aren’t born; they are made. Another great quote, this one from hall of fame football coach Vince Lombardi. It’s a great reminder that leadership often does not come naturally but through effort (and, as mentioned above, intentionality). On one hand that means even if you were born with some natural tendencies we attribute to leadership, it will take more than mere intuition to make you a great leader. But on the other hand, if you desire to lead but don’t believe you have the natural gifts to do so, you’re still in luck. Do not ever believe that your life circumstances dictate where you are going or who you are going to be. Anyone can be a leader.
  3. Seek feedback . We are nearly always blind to our own deficiencies. To improve as a leader, worker or anything else, we must first determine what needs to change. We do this by seeking feedback. For some, that may mean conducting a post-mortem debrief at the end of an important project, and for others could mean a 360-review conducted by human resources. But it can also be as simple as asking the question, “What do I need to do to improve?” As some often say, failure can be the greatest teacher — but that’s only true if you take the time to seek feedback.
  4. Listen. One of the greatest qualities of a leader is listening. Despite the number of books read and the number of degrees earned, the most well-meaning leaders cannot effectively lead if they are not listening to the subject-matter experts. As a young lawyer, I hoped that I would walk away with a law degree that would enable me to answer any and all legal questions. But when an acquaintance approached me one day asking about a criminal law matter in Kentucky, I quickly learned the importance of relying on the expertise of others. Find your knowledgeable, trustworthy, subject-matter experts and listen to them.
  5. Bloom where you are planted. I believe I first saw this quote embroidered on a wall hanging back in the 1980s, but somehow it stuck. Leadership is not a position you attain but a skill set you can use right where you are. Whether you are a member of middle management,  student or  stay-at-home mom, any of us can be called to lead or impact change within our circles of influence.

Being a leader is hard, but it is an important calling, and for many, a calling to glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31).  As a human resources professional who later became an attorney in the practice of employment law, I have seen leaders in the workplace rise to the occasion time and time again often asking tough questions on how to lead through difficult situations.

  • How do I handle the termination of a poor performing employee?
  • What do I do if someone accuses one of my employees of race discrimination?
  • When is it OK to express my religion at work?
  • How do I handle the employee who has told me they have thoughts of suicide?
  • How do I provide a friendly work environment for my employee who is hearing-impaired?

These are great questions with legal consequences that any good, effective leader in today’s workplace will need to know how to identify and work through thoughtfully.  We need good leaders in our workplaces. This is why intentional learning of leadership skills is more critical than ever. To lead means to learn — because when we know better, we do better.