“I demand respect!” he roared and slammed his clenched fist down hard on the table to stress how desperate he was…
There’s nothing more satisfying or stimulating than work worth doing under a leader worth following, writes Jac Phillips, as she argues that there are no leadership traits that can’t be learned.
“I demand respect!” he roared and slammed his clenched fist down hard on the table to stress how desperate he was.
We sat there staring. Embarrassed for him. Sad for him. Amazed at how he could be so unaware of the irony in his words and behaviour.
You can’t demand respect. You have to earn it. And if you want others to do something for you (and do it well), then you need to be aware of this. Being respected is probably one of the most powerful elements of being an effective leader.
What does being a leader really mean?
There are as many definitions as there are leaders! Often what forms our view of a leader is based on experience. Personally, I think my greatest learnings of leadership have come from those who were not good leaders and, thanks to their arrogance and general lack of awareness, were unlikely to ever become good leaders. Sad really, as we need to support those who want the immense responsibility of taking others on a purposeful journey.
The dictionary describes the noun ‘leader’ as, “a person who rules, guides or inspires others”.
The academic definition goes something like this: “Leaders define or clarify goals for a group, which can be as small as a seminar or as large as a nation state, and mobilise the energies of members of the group to pursue those goals.”
My humble explanation: a leader is confident in who they are and what they want, genuinely likes people, wants them to succeed and is prepared to take full accountability for all outcomes arising from their requests of others.
None of the above sounds too difficult, nor does it seem too unachievable, so why is it still quite rare to see many examples of consistently impressive leadership in public, business and community life? Maybe our fascination is in the human psyche and how differently we all behave when in positions of influence, power or essentially leadership?
Does an expert automatically earn the right to be a leader?
The majority of people who are professionals in their field, who have dedicated the ‘stated’ 10,000 hours of practice, who have demonstrated commitment and passion, the people deemed as ‘experts’, are often elevated to leadership status, often without any consideration as to if they possess the important attributes required to successfully lead and influence.
There is a raft of information online and offline and everyone has an opinion about the skills needed, but for simplicity’s sake here are the five I think critical – often referred to as ‘soft skills’ and all of which can be developed if they aren’t possessed already:
Confidence. Self-confident people are inspiring and we generally like to be around individuals who believe in themselves and in what they’re doing. Likewise, if you’re a positive and optimistic person who makes the best of any situation, you’ll find it much easier to motivate others to do their best. Positive people approach situations realistically, prepared to make the changes necessary to overcome a problem. Negative people on the other hand, often give in to the stress and pressure of the situation. This can lead to fear, worry, distress, anger and failure.
Self-awareness. If you aren’t conscious of how you make people feel when you speak and behave, you are at a disadvantage. If they aren’t motivated, empowered or even clear on what it is you require, then they aren’t likely to respond effectively. This is a wasted opportunity. Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing and good leaders lead by example. They do what they say, and say what they do.
Empathy. Being able to recognise emotions in others and being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes should never be underrated. To be empathetic, you have to think beyond yourself and your own concerns. People accused of being egotistical and selfish, or lacking perspective, have often missed the big picture. How many times have you said ‘sorry’ to others – your team, suppliers, colleagues, the senior leaders in your organisation? I apologise regularly – sometimes it is for something I have had nothing to do with (or knew anything about), but I took responsibility for it as my team were involved. Saying ‘sorry’ says I own the issue and should also indicate to others that I will fix it. Everyone can move on.
Humour. Unless your job is to cure cancer, you need to keep things in perspective. It is the only way you can efficiently solve issues and create an environment that supports broad thinking. A leader who is generally relaxed and open to seeing the lighter side of life is one who will create an environment conducive to creativity. I once worked for a leader whose emotions made a roller coaster route seem tame! Nobody ever knew how she would respond to their ideas or information – one day it could be with compliments and smiles, the next with insults and sarcasm. Not surprisingly, her people became stressed before ever fronting her and this volatile behaviour created such a tense culture, killing any creative or bold thinking. When I reflected on her leadership in later years, I realised she never made a joke, she never laughed at anything, least of all at herself.
Warmth. There is a growing body of research that suggests the best way to lead is to start with warmth, as it is warmth that facilitates trust and communication. A smile, a nod, an open gesture can demonstrate you are attentive, want to be in the company of others and are keen to understand other people. Warmth helps you connect quite quickly with others around you. Make a positive connection and you are then well- positioned to influence.
How to become a leader worth following
Aspire to a higher purpose. Business experts say it is the route to exceptional performance and psychologists describe it as the path to greater well-being.
The key is to understand the greater role our people play in building and maintaining successful businesses. It all starts with clarity and communication. Being able to define your company’s purpose and ambition creates a focus based on why you do the things you do, and not just what things you do.
It was made very clear to me before I joined the bank what our business purpose was. Single-minded and simple: create prosperity for Victoria – the people, the businesses, the communities.
I loved it. The marketing team together with our creative agency made sure our next brand campaign ‘For The Makers’ was aligned to this business purpose. Victorians wanting to ‘make it’ would ultimately create prosperity for our state. Everyone in our business (and those partners working alongside us) knows why we get out of bed every morning – the purpose we aspire to every day is to help our customers ‘make it’.
If you can define your business purpose, followed by your brand purpose (important to everyone in the organisation, not just the marketers!) then you can find ways for your people to take part. Seeing your brand as part of a wider ecosystem creates a stronger, more motivating context for staff to engage with their leaders and to support and advocate what the leadership needs to achieve.
Remembering the soft skills
Miscommunication accounts for most errors in business, because leaders have assumed what they said was not only heard but fully understood. If your team can’t approach you to confirm things or even question your decisions sometimes, then everyone starts playing the guessing game and this often ends in tears.
Honesty is always the best policy and is often linked to empathy. Ask members of your team what, if they were you, they would do in certain situations. No leader has all the answers. In fact, I have very few, but I am smart enough to hire really clever people who regularly create the questions!
Have the courage of your convictions. As their leader, back your team every time. What is most critical is your team knows they are never alone. The power comes from the group and a confident team will achieve far more than a group of people constantly looking over their shoulders in fear of being reprimanded.
Work worth doing, a leader worth following. There’s nothing more satisfying or stimulating. It’s really worth it.
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