5 Leadership Lessons from Uncle Mac, the man currently raising our son

My fourteen year old son is currently living with his Uncle Mac and Aunty Karen. It’s hard for me being away from my boy. But I know in my heart, he’s exactly where he needs to be at this time of his life. Largely due to Uncle Mac.

We visited him last weekend. I watched Uncle Mac with my boy.

I watched them as they talked while working alongside each other, mucking out the horses in the field next to the house. 

I watched their little interactions during the weekend, as Zach came and went from the house. 

I watched Uncle Mac teach Zach how to train their puppy not to bite when they played.

I learnt more about what inspiring leadership looks like than I have in many years. This humble man from the East Coast, with little education and a lot of tattoos, taught me more in one weekend than a lifetime spent with MBA clad senior executives in glass windowed board rooms.

Great leadership comes from actions, mana  and heart. 

Not from a title, corner office and positional power.

I think we could all learn a lesson or two in leadership from watching Uncle Mac guide and lead my boy as he finds his way in the world.  I want to share with you 5 leadership lessons from Uncle Mac:

  1.       Be clear in communicating your expectations.

Uncle Mac spells out his expectations and boundaries to Zach with laser-like precision. 

Zach knows before he can go out with his mates, he has to stack the firewood. He knows before he goes to school, he needs to make his bed. He knows he is to greet Aunty with a hug whenever he walks in the door. 

Mac is very clear in communicating to Zach what he expects of him in terms of his actions, but also in terms of how he behaves. The ‘be’, as well as the ‘do’. And oh boy, does Zach know exactly what the consequences are if he steps outside those lines!

Leadership takeout? Be purposeful and clear when it comes to communicating expectations to your team. 

Too many leaders are vague, aren’t clear themselves on exactly what their expectations are – or assume their team members are on the same page. 

Focus on expected team behaviours, as well as task focused job related expectations. Get them to communicate back to you what they understand these to be, to check that everyone is clear. Be transparent about the consequences of not meeting those expectations. More importantly, explore what’s in it for them (the benefits) if they do.You’ll save yourself a world of pain if you do this upfront.

  1.       Listen. More deeply than you probably currently do.

Zach got home from school, plopped himself on the couch and started to tell Uncle Mac about his day. This in itself is a miracle. He’s usually typically teenager-monosyllabic, especially when it comes to school.  Mac listened to Zach happily babble on about shark facts. 

You might have heard of  Stephen Covey’s Five Levels of Listening? Well, Uncle Mac was at level five – empathic listening. Listening deeply with every fibre of his being to what Zach had to say. Not listening merely to reply. Not listening to teach. Not listening with half an ear, as he checked his phone. He was fully and deeply attentive, with the odd nod and smile – and a tonne of silence.

After a while, Uncle Mac asked Zach a question – which he could only have done if he’d been listening to this degree. I watched Zach puff up and feel good in Uncle Mac’s presence. I saw pride in him being able to tell Uncle Mac what he’d learnt. 

I saw the trust build between a young man and his Uncle. And then – and here’s the ironic bit – Zach then listened to Uncle Mac too. In that moment, he was tuned into the power of learning. 

And all because Mac listened to him.

Leadership takeout? Listen more deeply than you probably already do. Read about the five levels of listening and see if you can ‘up your listening game’ to Uncle Mac’s superpower level. 

Put your phone down, turn to your direct reports and listen without interrupting, waiting for them to finish so you can speak, or focussing on solving the problem instead of understanding it first. Do that and you’ll already be ahead of the game. 

Although this approach might seem like taking too much time – you’ll slow down to speed up. And more importantly, you’ll take others along with you.

  1.       Use the leadership superpowers of patience and repetition.

Although Uncle Mac is quick to pull Zach up if he steps out of line, he’s as patient with Zach as he is when he’s training his horses. He doesn’t let stuff slide. But at the same time, he doesn’t have unrealistic expectations either. He knows learning anything new can be hard.  It takes a few goes, a few scraped knees. He’s patient. And he repeats the key messages he wants Zach to hear more than once.

Leadership takeout? As Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s best executive coaches, so eloquently puts it in his book Triggers – Creating Behaviour That Lasts and Becoming The Person You Want to Be, “Change, no matter how urgent and clear the need, is hard. It’s hard to initiate behavioural change, even harder to stay the course, hardest of all to make the change stick. I’d go so far as to say that adult behavioural change is the most difficult for sentient human beings to accomplish”

Imagine how hard that change is for a teenage kid who still has half his brain undeveloped to make positive change overnight!? Uncle Mac is patient. And he repeats stuff until the cows come home, as Zach goes along.  

Patience, compassion and repetition of key messages. Honest, corrective feedback. Helping your direct report understand WHY they do what they do. These are are useful leadership approaches, which Uncle Mac models with finesse.

  1.       If they stuff up, make it about the action or decision, not about the person.

Like all teenagers (and us adults too, come to think of it), we stuff up and do stupid things at times. One of Uncle Mac’s favourite sayings to Zach is, “Zach, it’s about making good decisions or bad decisions, not whether YOU yourself are good or bad. Make good decisions.” Somehow, this makes it more about the action or decision, less about him as a person. This approach doesn’t shame Zach. And there’s no learning when there’s shame.

Leadership take out? When someone comes unstuck, does something that gets in the way of them being effective, or makes a mistake – make it about the behaviour and not about the person. Get alongside them and talk about the decision in a way that does not shame a person. “You are rude and abrupt” is about the person. Working on someone’s tendency to interrupt or fold their arms when they disagree is about the behaviour.

  1.       Believe in people’s potential.

Perhaps more than anything last weekend, I saw Uncle Mac see the man that Zach can and hopefully will become. He somehow held up this mirror to Zach and said, without actually saying anything, “here, this is who you can become.” This belief in Zach’s potential and trust that he’ll be just fine, is what I see Zach responding so positively to. 

People generally live up or down to your expectations.

Leadership takeout? Believe in people’s potential. Seek to identify their strengths and then encourage them to develop them and use them in their role as much as possible. Don’t fall prey to the Golem effect.

Uncle Mac is no angel. I think maybe now I come to think of it, that’s part of his magic. 

But he has mana (Maori concept of influence and respect), humility and aroha in immense quantities. 

And these are pretty awesome leadership qualities, don’t you think? 


  1. Sharon Lea on September 30, 2019 at 3:46 pm

    What a great read, thank you so much for sharing your personal story with us and how good is it to see your son growing and learning with Uncle Mac. We need more leaders like him.

  2. Hilary Moir on September 13, 2019 at 10:28 am

    Great article, I am using it with an emerging leaders program here in London – Having a Kiwi lens goes a long way!!!

  3. Debra McIntyre on September 12, 2019 at 12:34 pm

    I love this post, I could use someone like uncle mac for my son. Listening is key and with the crazy we all have in life, sometimes that is missed. I think it is also a way of being, like uncle Mac my uncles and aunties were the same. Lessons through mahi, basic manners, repetition, realistic expectations and (the hardest of all sometimes) patience. I am happy for your boy as I know that benefits he will gain will be life changing for him. These values cant be taught through a book. Blessings

  4. Jess Van Rooyen on September 9, 2019 at 12:53 pm

    Great post Suzi – I really connect with the concept of focusing on making good or bad decisions – that’s really powerful and positive:)

    • Suzi McAlpine on September 10, 2019 at 1:35 pm

      It is eh! Its really resonating with me – and luckily Zach too!

  5. Brigitte Lemaire on September 9, 2019 at 12:33 pm

    Hi Suzi, loved reading this. The journey of life is so complicated for the young and we are truly blessed when we can link up and in with those who can make this path meaningful and purposeful, with a joyful, knowledgable and accountable journey being the ultimate result. Our child’s journey is their journey, not ours as parents. I have to remind myself when talking to my lovely daughter – Times are different now. We all need an Uncle Mac in life during those early years. With love to you and your loved ones. Brigitte and Ross

    • Suzi McAlpine on September 10, 2019 at 1:35 pm

      Thank so much for taking the time to comment Brigitte 🙂 Love what you say here.

  6. Christine Gladstone on September 8, 2019 at 1:09 pm

    Absolutely stunning information. Thank you.

  7. Tanya Houghton on September 6, 2019 at 8:36 pm

    great post Suzi and so pleased to hear that Zach is doing well in this environment :)x

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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