I recently got the chance to present this at a small gathering of business leaders in Santa Cruz, California. The crux of the gathering was to have these business leaders listen to real people. I consider myself quite fortunate to be considered a "real person" I think that's one big piece of being successful in this industry we all love so much and I believe this to be very relevant to the work we do. I do want you to bear in mind however that I am not speaking from a position of expertise on this matter; I am not pretending to be that kind of expert. I write this as someone who had been led by many (or maybe not so well led as you will come to find out). So my expertise on Leadership comes from that perspective. Much in the same way that I have never worked in the food services industry, but I have a lot of experience eating. So here we go.
What is Actual Leadership?
I am going to talk to you about Leadership. Not the usual kind of leadership discussion you are used to. Not about bearing the weight of the world, making tough decisions, or hard choices to improve the bottom line. Those are more like leadership duties - and there are truly enough seminars, books, and classes you can take to learn those leadership skills. The kind of leadership I am talking about is more along the lines of what does it take to be a leader, what is actual leadership?
Many of you are confirmed successful business leaders with experience working in a tremendously volatile marketplace and industry, but as leaders go, quite frankly, you're just not doing your job. No offense, but what you do is manage. You make choices, and decide, and cut, and spend, and approve, and deny, and get so overwhelmed that you hide in your office. That's management, that's responsibility, but that's not true leadership.
When we talk about "actual leadership" what are we looking for? Most "Leaders" are no more leaders than the guy who gets on the escalator first. He's not necessarily more qualified than the people behind him, but he walked a little faster to get there first and the people behind him have no choice but to follow him up to the next floor. Many corporations take this approach to finding managers and on some level it makes sense. The person who does the work that makes them stand out, that saves the company money, that chaired the successful project, gets promoted to the management level position. That person has proven their work skills or project management skills but not necessarily their leadership ability. At times this process is no more than a professional version of the playground game "follow the leader", only with a broader set of criteria. Instead of, "Timmy gets to lead for 5 minutes and then it is Sally's turn," we crunch the numbers, weigh the deliverables, evaluate the milestones, and ultimately a decision is made on who gets promoted.
Those kids on the playground are only following in anticipation of getting their own turn to lead, they are not 'true' followers. To be a great leader you need true followers. These true followers are people who WANT to follow the leader because they like the way the leader leads. It is not just about liking the leader as a person; there are plenty of great people who are just not great or even good leaders. But to be liked as a leader there are a few key elements that need to be present along with all of the above criteria already mentioned. One of these, and it I do not apologize that it is my favorite, is the ability to inspire others.
Inspiring someone to do something, to drive towards something, to want what you want is not as hard as you may think. Unfortunately, most people confuse this with motivation. While motivation or motivating someone toward a task is equally important, a person can be motivated without being inspired. And without that inspirational element the work may not be done as well or as soon, or as thoroughly, because the person doing it is motivated by some external force, be it good or bad, but not necessarily because they want to.
So I am telling you that you need to get people to want to do the things you need them to do to be a great leader. If that's all you need to do and so many of you are not doing it then it must be a really hard thing to grasp and a there must be some science or magic potion or formula we can use to make that happen right? Wrong.
Some of things a leader can do to be more inspirational is to be a little more human. We get so bogged down and preoccupied with the weight of our responsibilities that we forget that the people who report to us need to know that we are people just like them and that we KNOW that. So how can we do that in a way that we aren't already? Try having a conversation with an employee that is not about work but about their interests or yours. By sincerely making an effort to understand their interests you can tailor future conversations in a way that may not only motivate but inspire them, because it shows that you are thinking of them and that you may even care about them.
Another very critical element of being more human and being an inspirational leader is to thank people…often. There are in fact too many leaders today who say, "Why do I need to thank people for doing the job they are supposed to do?" I personally love this question and I answer it with this. If you are invited to a wedding you are expected to bring a gift. For that you get free food, sometimes live music and you get to bear witness to a very special, maybe even once in a lifetime, day in the life of a friend or loved one. You are expected to show up and bring a gift. And the bride and/or groom writes a thank you note. Why do they do that if it is expected that you bring a gift? Because it is common courtesy to recognize the gesture or effort or attendance no matter how crappy the gift is. So I argue that offering thanks to an employee is not overly praising them for doing the work they are supposed to be doing, it is a common courtesy. Ultimately, in the hierarchical businesses we live with today, the work the people on the bottom rungs do make the higher rungs look better, and if they work harder, smarter and are happier, then they'll make those higher rungs look even that much better. So take the time to thank someone every day, not because they are doing the work they are supposed to do, but because you appreciate that they remain committed to doing the work.
The next area is "knowledge". Many leaders believe that by giving their workers/employees only enough knowledge to do their job and nothing else that said workers/employees should and will do their jobs well. True enough, but will they perform in a way that beats the competition that embraces innovation and change? Or will they just hunker down and do the job out of fear of losing it? This is where many leaders make mistakes. They believe that the latter is how you keep people focused. That if I can keep all the different parts moving the machine will produce. One part does not have to know what the other part is doing. This is similar to the belief that if someone can drive a car and you give them the keys to do so, they only need to know how to drive and that they do not need to know how the car works. However, since there are so many people and hazards on the roads these days we actually do need to know more than just how to turn the key to make it go. We need to know how to drive in adverse conditions, how to avoid an accident, how to interact with other drivers on the road. None the less, many leaders only want their workers/employees to know just enough to do their job. This is where "Knowledge is power" means "you only get knowledge if you have power and that power remains with management." That should go on the tombstone of the Roman Empire. But there is another kind of "knowledge is power". In a smaller business environment where things are exciting and fast paced and everyone is working together towards a common highly visible goal. In this case "knowledge is power" generally means, "the more people who have the knowledge the more powerful we are as an organization". This is getting us closer to actual leadership. Let's go back to the car analogy - if I have the knowledge of how the entire car works and how the different parts work together I am more likely to respond correctly when I start hydroplaning on a very wet road (turn in the direction the car is sliding in for those who do not know). I submit that this kind of "knowledge is power" is a key component to leadership. It goes a long way in building trust and exhibiting honesty to the workers/employees. But what knowledge are we really talking about?
Perhaps most importantly is this – everyone can be a leader and everyone is a leader at something. The retail sales associate leads a customer to the purchase. The waiter leads the support staff to take care of the customer. The recruiter leads the candidate to the job AND the recruiter leads the hiring manager to the great hire. The parent leads the child in so many ways, and the child leads the parent through the world with a new sense of wonder and excitement. Every person you encounter, or manage, or deal with has these responsibilities in some form or another. By understanding each other and being sensitive to that very fact can make it that much easier to inspire each other on a daily basis.
So far you might get the idea that sharing your hobbies, showing your appreciation, and telling people what is going on are all you have to do to become a great leader, but of course there is more. Putting those elements together is actually how you get on the road to inspire people. Sharing a vision, a mission, a goal with other people is actual leadership. Letting them know why it is important to you is actual leadership. Letting them know how they fit into the grand scheme of things is actual leadership. Letting them know that you will work with them and that you are relying on them to work WITH you to solve problems and overcome hurdles is actual leadership. All of these things help your workers/employees understand why it is important for them to buy into the vision, to embrace the mission, to drive towards the goal. This is what inspires them to follow the leader. This is who you can be and not only will your organization be stronger for it, but your life will be richer for it as well.
Next? Actual Leadership Part II "What can I do with Actual Leadership?"