Shawn H. Wilson (Usher’s New Look Foundation) in “The Corner Office”

Photo: Librado Romero/The New York Times

Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Shawn H. Wilson, president of Usher’s New Look Foundation which offers programs for youths. In many workplaces, he says, “people tend to make excuses or spin the truth,” attitudes he finds harmful to an organization’s culture.

To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

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Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

Wilson:I actually became a manager pretty early, at 19, with the Y.M.C.A. in Milwaukee. I went from lifeguard to aquatic coordinator, and I supervised all the lifeguards and the swim instructors.I remember the transition for a couple of reasons. One, it was tough going from peer to supervisor. I was naïve about it, thinking, “Oh, we can still have this great relationship.” But ultimately I had to figure out that it was more important to be a great supervisor than a great friend to the team, because that was in the best interest of the organization.

So the lesson was that your actions speak louder than words. I sensed my staff looking at what I was doing more than what I was telling them. It’s like that saying, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

I’ve always remembered that, because I think whether they’re looking at you or not, they’re definitely monitoring what you do, and you can’t contradict what you’re telling them with your actions.

Bryant: What are some leadership insights you’ve learned from mentors over the years?

Wilson: I’ve learned a lot about humility from many leaders. And I’ve seen some who were not very humble, and they ended up paying the price for that. If someone calls you humble, that’s the biggest compliment they can give you because they see that you have something to be cocky about, but you’re not. It’s important that your staff sees that, and it’s important that people who invest in the shared vision see that. People ultimately want to be around other individuals who are humble because we’ve all been around the cocky guy. That’s not a fun guy to be around.

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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.

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