Recently, here at our blog, we shared a post on how to avoid being the subject of a leadership horror story in which I painted a picture of the common reactions we hear when we discuss our work. You can read that post here.
In that post, part one of this series, I discussed how, in my line of work, it often goes like this: "You work in leadership development? Oh, my company really needs that!" Stories about a terrible boss or an uncomfortable experience often follow comments like this. In order to emphasize a point, that post, frankly, focused on the negative. And to leave it there would be incomplete.
Sometimes, when I discuss my work with others, I hear such comments as: “Oh, that’s really neat. I bet my boss could teach a lesson or two.” Whenever I hear people make positive references about managers, I probe in an effort to understand what makes them great.
Here, below, are a few aspirational leadership themes from the stories I’ve heard.1) Empower Your Team.
Great leaders understand that their job is to get the best out of their people and develop the next generation of leaders. The best leaders can effectively delegate and make the transition from delivering results themselves to delivering results through their teams and their people. To deliver work through others, leaders must empower their teams.
At Insight Experience, when we talk about empowerment, we are referring to leaders' abilities to:
- Clarify ownership of responsibilities and results.
- Hold themselves, their teams, and the organization accountable.
- Drive decisions down to the lowest possible level — and know when to take ownership themselves.
One of the most profound leadership anecdotes I’ve heard has been about the idea of empowerment. A leader I respect greatly once told me: “If you are going to delegate something, you have to be OK with the fact that it might get done differently than how you would do it.” It’s a simple, straightforward idea, but it's one that can be a tripping hazard for high performers who have been successful delivering results in a particular way. Sometimes the best course of action for a leader is to sit on their hands and let go. Let someone really own something; allow them to make mistakes; provide support, as needed; be a North Star; and give them space to chart their own path.
Many of the positive leadership stories I’ve heard have been about leaders who invited more junior employees to critical meetings and then let them own the action items generated there. Or leaders who listened to a new idea and let the person who originally pitched it present it to the client or the organization. The notion of letting someone “take the first stab at something” is a powerful leadership mechanism to develop the skills of a team; at the same time, it creates a natural opportunity for coaching. Essentially, good leaders clear the path for their people to be successful.
"The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things." —Ronald Reagan
2) Be Willing to Make Tough Choices.
In addition to developing people, leaders must be able to make difficult decisions. As leaders rise in an organization, the more ambiguity and uncertainty they will face when calling the shots. Employees value leaders who can make unpopular or hard choices and own them while simultaneously displaying empathy and a concern for the individuals the choice impacts.
If often falls on leaders to make the choice about suspending investment in a particular project, reducing the size of the team, or forgoing an opportunity a team member pitched. It is critical for leaders to step up to the plate; make and communicate difficult choices; explain why they are being made; and even recognize, candidly, the unpleasantness of it all. When leaders have backbone and exercise transparency, it builds trust.
Some of the positive stories from my network have involved leaders who were able to appropriately recognize and deal with a chronic underperformer. I’ve heard stories about leaders who were willing to make the difficult choice to put such an employee on a performance development plan and, ultimately, let them go if performance does not improve. Those who share stories like this always explain that it is such a relief to have a manager who protects the integrity of the team and follows through when expectations are not met.
"A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent." —Douglas MacArthur
3) Create a Sense of Belonging.
Some of the best stories I’ve heard about effective leaders are those who show up as their authentic self and work to create a sense of belonging on their team. We know from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that, once our physiological and safety needs are met, belonging is essential for growth as human beings. We have a need to maintain interpersonal relationships and feel part of a group. We also know that in the course of our lives we spend a significant amount of time, even if working remotely, with the people with whom we work. Our colleagues play a part in most of our days.
A leader’s ability to create a positive working environment and create a sense of belonging for everyone on the team — through recognition, one-on-ones that include conversation about non-work items, team events where people are able to connect beyond the bounds of work, and creating an environment where it is OK to laugh — can have a huge impact on team morale.
I heard a story from a colleague deep in the interview process with a high-tech organization that was just starting to take off. The business was scaling rapidly with multiple initiatives underway. After being offered and accepting the job, the very first thing the leader said to the new hire was: “You are joining us just at the right time.” This person shared that it was a simple but reassuring sentiment that they were going to be valued and that they were in no way “behind.”
And I’ve heard about teams or business units that have a “fun committee” who coordinate virtual activities. I’ve heard stories about teams who, once a month, gather at the office to share a meal and work together. Leaders who can create a culture of acceptance and belonging are leaders that employees genuinely want to work for.
"Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily, even if you had no title or position." —Brian Tracy
These suggestions require personal reflection and intentionality. It can be challenging to let go and trust someone else to take the reins. It is tough to make unpopular choices. And it can be hard to remember the human needs in the course of doing work. As you go through your week ahead, pay attention to how much you are able to push decisions down. Ask yourself which decision you have delayed and how that impacts your team. Pay attention to how you can incorporate more humanness in your meetings, particularly if your team works remotely and does not have the luxury of the “oh, by the way” comments that the office provides.
Good luck and happy leading! (And if you have a leadership success story, please let us know in the comments below.)
Krista Campbell is an Associate Director who designs and facilitates business simulation-based learning programs at Insight Experience, an award-winning global leadership development company with an expertise in business simulations. She specializes in programs that promote communication, strategic thinking, and developing people.