Leadership Lessons

A colleague recently returned from an austere assignment in the desert, and told me a story of leadership lessons that I’d like to share with you.

He said that he read a few articles on About Leaders, namely What Leadership Qualities Inspire Employees? and Tacit Leadership and tried to keep certain key points from those articles in mind. He said that being mindful of these ideas made a significant difference to his leadership abilities He tried to be the type of leader who inspired both followership and leadership through positive means.

He succeeded.

He explained the conditions he had to work in. They were austere, with camel spiders and scorpions and sandstorms. It was a dirty and dusty environment and the facilities did little to buffer the severity. Also, he had to make significant changes to the business, including moving their entire operation while remaining functional. Increased workload, new procedures and new requirements from above were rolling in like the non-stop sandstorms. Finally, few people wanted to be there.

“We needed initiative and innovation. How do you expect them to have a positive attitude, let alone take initiative, in such an environment?”

Leadership Lessons Building Blocks

My colleague said that staying consistent with the following three principles made a night-and-day difference:

1. Always Remain Calm and Never Show Negative Emotion Toward Your Team.

As if changing procedures and moving the entire operation wasn’t stressful enough, upper leadership repeatedly pressured him. “It was rare that we’d come out of our daily ops meetings without distress,” he said emphatically. “But I vowed to always buffer that from my team – wasn’t about to let that [stuff] roll downhill onto them.”

In the article 7 Common Leadership Mistakes, keeping a calm mind is suggested, “[a] calm mind comes up with brilliant solutions”.  My colleague noted that not a week went by without some crisis, whether real or perceived, that required innovative thinking. In Morgan Johnes’ article, “What Leadership Qualities Inspire Employees?”, he discusses staying calm in a crisis. “I applied that the best I could and it was the single most important thing I did.”

2. Treat Everyone Fairly and With Respect

The best approach to motivating your team and making their contributions seem valued is to treat everyone equitably – treat them not only as a valued member of the team, but as a valued human being. This doesn’t mean that you have to become their buddy, but rather you talk to them as a fellow human being while maintaining the power differential.

There is certainly an art to building this kind of rapport, which may be why many leaders are afraid to even try. I’ve often heard, “I don’t care if they like me as long as they respect me and do their job.” However, if you hold them in high regard and respect them, they will notice and will feel the need to meet your expectations. Your expectations of them will be conveyed whether or not you intend them to.

Of course, you want to do more than just rely on implicit communications – you want to also communicate directly. Have a mixture of both implicit and explicit communication, but lean more on the implicit– walk the walk more than you talk the talk.

3. Empower Your Team

It is important to empower your team to perform the job they were hired to do. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to miss this step and get roped into doing an employee’s job for them.

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William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass wrote about this over 40 years ago in their famous HBR article “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” The article is mostly about subordinate managers but contains a good general lesson.  He says that the work you were hired to do is your “monkey”, your own issue to deal with. As their leader, you should only be involved in their work when it is a joint effort, barring extenuating circumstances.

For instance, you may need to support them or give them feedback or an evaluation, but you should never take on their responsibilities for too long. You should only intervene collaboratively and when they are present. You want them to take their “monkey” with them when they leave your office, not you.

Today this is called empowerment. Empowering others is a challenge for some leaders. Leaders are responsible for their team and its actions. Leaders are the first targets for criticism from upper management when things go awry. We leaders need our jobs too. The two keys that are critical to making empowerment work are hiring the right people and setting them up to succeed. Although it is important to hire qualified people, even highly qualified new hires need support and have something to learn in a new job.

4. Support Your Team

Make sure you support them by removing roadblocks, supplying them with necessary tools and resources, and transferring knowledge, including that of the culture and its embedded skills (see Schein’s Organizational Culture).

You will likely need to work more with some employees than with others. We should try to lead and mentor those who need the most hand-holding until they no longer need it.  Of course, there is limitation to how much of this you should do.  This was addressed eloquently by Dr. Greg Halpern in his article, “All Leadership is Situational!”

The Results

In the end, if you keep these strategies in mind, your team will do great things and you will begin to notice improvements that count the most when it comes to feedback about your leadership style and approach.

My colleague became more and more impressed with his team. “When the [expletive removed] would hit the fan, my team tried to protect me from it rather than the other way around. They wanted to make the impossible happen so I wasn’t stomped on the next morning,” he said, almost teary-eyed. “They already felt empowered and so they innovated to get the job done. I always took accountability when things went wrong and gave them the credit when things went well.”

“Before we left they all pitched in for a really special gift for me. They thanked me for treating them fairly and with respect despite all the pressures above me. I don’t miss that place but I already miss that team.”

I’d Love to Hear from You

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.
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