Most of what I know about leadership I've learned in two distinct phases.

First was the practice phase, when I was a manager at three different companies, first as a young management recruit at a shoe store, then as a manager at a small startup, then as a director at a large corporation. After that came my analysis phase, a period of about the same time when I've been able to look back and, more importantly, compare my leadership practices with those I've been able to interview and interact with as a journalist. Both periods of time are valuable, and I've felt for a few years now that I prefer influencing leaders to actually being in charge.

Yet, of the two phases, my biggest lessons by far were in that shoe store. I was a total and complete failure as a manager, a newbie before they invented the word. I had no idea what I was doing on a day-to-day basis. I was about 23 years old, green as a Shamrock Shake at McDonald's, yet 100% in charge of every employee.

I remember the time one of the employees got so frustrated with me that she threw a penny loafer at me from across the shoe aisle and stormed out. Thankfully, she missed. It was awkward and embarrassing at the time, yet the irony is that this employee taught me to say three simple words.

I'm guessing you think the words are: "I am sorry."

Not so fast on that one.

What really happened way back when was a bit more complicated, and it wasn't a lesson I learned at the time. It was something I had to mull over in my head a few times for years afterward. It was something I applied later in my management career.

At the time, she kept telling me I spent too much time instructing employees and not enough time doing anything. I'd hang out in the front of the store, trying to look busy. I looked over some of the receipts for the day, did some mental calculations, and tried to do the things that bosses do. I thought being a leader meant playing a role.

There are times when we have a lesson to learn as leaders, and we experience something meant to teach as a valuable lesson, but we don't actually learn the lesson until much later when we think about what we should have done.

For me, I needed to say this: "You were right."

I needed to apologize, but then take the next step and admit where I went wrong and then change. Why? Because leadership is an act of listening to your employees and changing your attitude and actions so they follow your lead. Those who are not leaders don't have to lead anyone anywhere, so they don't need to change course necessarily. (That said, everyone needs leadership qualities in every job even if they don't have followers, and especially in the modern workforce.)

The employees were watching me. Everyone was following my example. When I spent too much time "being the boss" up front, I wasn't showing the employees how to act, how to fill in the down-time by organizing the racks or cleaning up the back room.

Amazingly, I still see managers (and founders of startups) who are too high and mighty to view the word "lead" as a verb. It has to be a demonstration, a way to show others the right way to act. You need to say "act like me" and then have people follow you, not just act like a leader who is too far removed from the masses.

I left that job after a few years, but I applied that lesson in every other job (and, by the way, in my marriage and in other areas of life). It took a penny loafer to convince me.