I was once given one of the best compliments you can receive as a leader: “I would follow you into any battle”. Such a comment from a respected associate is of course wonderful to hear, but it also makes one consider the nature and importance of our roles as leaders. This is something of great interest to me, and I have been inspired and informed by too many excellent books and leaders to do them service listing them here.
Some of the truths which I hold most dear came from my father, a man that during his lifetime built many commercial buildings all around the country that are still in use today. He was a hands-on leader and a builder, with expertise in making buildings happen on time despite budgetary and design challenges. He would work with architects and engineers to resolve structural challenges, and just as readily work alongside the laborers sweeping out the building at the end of the day.
A few of the most important truisms he shared with me are:
- If you want to be a leader, be someone that people will want to follow.
- There is no task or job beneath you, every job plays its part in the success of the project.
- Don’t just tell people what to do, tell them why and they will not forget that “how” matters.
- If someone on your team messed up then it is your mistake to own. Make good on it.
- Act how you want your team to act. Every single day. Even when you don’t want to.
- Work hard. Be quick to admit your mistakes, but don’t make them a second time.
- A leader’s team will follow as far as he or she can go. You can’t get far pushing people.
We have all seen the difference between being a manager of people and being a leader. When authority is the sole motivation behind following the instructions of a manager the effort, focus, and resolve of the managed is limited to perceived repercussions for non-compliance. On the other hand a leader is a trusted source of vision and guidance towards the success of shared goals. All parties want to get to this imagined place of success, and the leader is the trusted guide to get there.
There is a deeper truth here, as our human nature is very much keyed to relationships. When we don’t want to disappoint a respected figure in our life, our heart is committed in ways that we are never motivated by simple fear. Triggering fight or flight fear responses will indeed make people move with alacrity the first time, and maybe once or twice more. After that they will be engaged in finding a way to get away from the source of the fear, namely their boss. But the bond with a respected figure doesn’t break with exercise, instead it strengthens.
Of critical importance to this discussion is the realization that this bond must be genuine. You can’t fake your way into a long term trust and respect based leadership relationship with your team. This is the most important truism of all, and the one that I have seen most often as the limiting factor to leadership. If you want people to follow you, then you must be someone worth following. Your personal goal must be to live as the epitome of what you want from your team in regards to investment and integrity. Earn the trust and respect of your team and they will follow you through adversity. You must become this. Your heart must be committed and your actions and integrity genuine.
There are a number of patterns and behaviors that should be cultivated in your interaction with the team and others within and without your organization. Much of the challenge we find as a leader is to maintain accountability within our team while not creating an authoritarian and fear based organization. If your team operates on fear but you speak to trust and integrity the cognitive dissonance this creates will critically challenge morale. Here are a few important patterns I recommend:
- Create a buffer or “safe-zone” for your teams. They do not need to know all of the worries and stresses that you carry as a leader. Make the facts accessible, but don’t transmit the higher anxiety of your role to the folks trying to get the daily work done. Some personality types are unable to function if worried, this is something I have noticed in many engineer personalities.
- Own the mistakes of your team personally. Attribute all the successes and wins to the team, with recognition of each of the individuals and/or groups to the degree practical. Accountability discussions should be held in private, congratulations should be public.
- Believe in your people. The faith and respect you show to your team will be reflected back in commitment and effort above and beyond. If you have associates that you can’t believe in this is your failure as a leader, as they should be removed. Be transparent with your team about these adjustments, because quietly walking people creates more worry than a simple explanation of cause.
- Greet everyone that comes to your door with a smile. Even if you need to have a difficult discussion, always start by showing them that you are pleased they are on the team. When you need to become serious or critical of an area for improvement this only increases the weight of your message when you shift from greeting to serious discussion.
- Invest in your associates. Be excited to teach them what you know. Find out what their personal growth plan is and support them, even if it means they will leave your team if it is achieved. If you value them as people they will value you as a leader.
- Master your own fear. If you want people to follow you through adversity they must see that you are leading the charge with confidence. Whether realistic or not, our human nature requires that to commit to a leader we must have the perception of strength and vision beyond our own. Courage is not a lack of fear, it is mastering the fear that comes.
- Serve your team. They do not exist to serve you, they are the people that are going to achieve the great things that you envision. Your job is to serve and facilitate their efforts, strengths, and skills to accomplish the goals you have set. Any greatness you achieve is on the shoulders of the great folks you have working with you. Hold on to that appreciation and respect.
- Be genuine in all things. We will all fail at times to achieve our goals to be the leader our team deserves. When we show our own vulnerability and humanity it can increase trust, despite our stumble. But only if we are genuine. If you feel that the faith of your team is a blessing and an honor they will see this truth and respond in kind.
- Set clear expectations and specific metrics for your team to apply themselves. When people can understand what is expected of them and see whether or not they are succeeding they will be invested in their success. Communicate to them often about their progress. People need to see for themselves and also have direct and frequent feedback.
- Celebrate the victories. I see this as a most often lacking element to serving our teams. There needs to be celebration and acknowledgement of every win, in proportion to the efforts put in to achieve it. This is very important to your team, especially before they take on the next really challenging project.
- Support a healthy work and life balance. You can’t reinforce putting personal lives second to work goals and expect your team to believe that you care about them as people. And more to the point, you want these great people to have a happy and successful life. Our own sometimes driven and obsessive personality characteristics can use the reminder as well. A job can be a very rewarding part of our life, but family and relationships are what make us truly happy. A healthy and happy team is capable of achieving the greatest things!
The final point that I will make in this short essay would be about the amount of time you invest in yourself as a leader. Honing our skills and spending time thinking about how better to serve our teams must be a high ongoing priority. Too often we get caught up in the battles and projects as they come, and feel we are too busy to invest effort on our own development. This can erode our performance as we lose our focus on growing as a leader.
To be a visionary leader we must periodically step back from the day to day pressures and efforts, so that we can calm our mind and ponder what is ahead of us. We can’t wait until we complete our current vision to think about what comes next.
But of greatest significance, we must continually hold onto the importance of improving our leadership and service to the team. I will leave you with a final quote from my father: “Where you focus your heart, your mind and body will follow”.