Insight and vision - this is the stuff of great leaders. We can all bring to mind leaders who had great visions they effectively shared with their organizations, enabling success (sometimes despite other leadership short-comings). Why is this the case? How can a leader, who may be ineffective at supporting people consistently be very effective at communicating vision and insight, managing to make a whole enterprise successful? Likely it is because the number one motivator for many employees is providing meaningful work. When you have a clear and well articulated vision you are in a position to provide others with opportunities to be valuable, and know it. This translates into more discretionary effort and high productivity for an organization.
Motivating others to bring their best work forward is a huge component of leadership. This takes insight, an understanding of what needs to be done and how to accomplish it through others. Sharing insight brings a level of distributed understanding that people find incredibly energizing. When that energy is present it means individuals understand the bigger picture, they can see how they, their team, and/or the organization as a whole, will get from “here” to “there” and what marks success (which includes integrity, ethics and quality). But without out meaning none of this takes hold, so a leader also has to help people see (from their individual perspective) how they contribute value, which is the cornerstone of meaningful work.
A lot of time and energy is spent by organizations on mission and vision statements for this reason. However, these artifacts can quickly become demotivating if the leaders in your organization are not exemplifying them by leading by example and keeping others appraised of progress and outcomes that tie back to mission and vision. You have to keep using these items in a multifaceted and authentic way to make relevant the many iterations of your strategic plan, allowing others to follow your organizations’ evolution. If your vision is too narrow it is achieved quickly and loses value. If it is too big it feels like you are on a treadmill where no matter how fast you run you never get there. Balance is key, mixed with a bit of creativity. There are many great vision statements out there. My all time favourite is from Steve Jobs who said “We are here to put a dent in the universe”. Powerful, simple and (as it turned out) achievable, but he may have been the only leader who could make that vision happen for his organization, reinforcing the need for it to be authentic.
Another tool needed when imparting insight is transparency. While Jobs had a vision, he did not have a clear 20-year map of how Apple was going to get “there” and there was a lot of trial and error along the way. The road wasn’t smooth or sometimes even apparent, and Jobs was not the easiest leader to work for. However, he had an unwavering belief in what they were doing and year after year millions tuned in to hear him speak, curious about the next iteration of Apple products. He never failed to impress (even if the products sometimes did) he always tied it back to making something that had never been done before, on that he didn’t waver. Apple made its dent.
Do you need to be Steve Jobs to bring this level of motivation to your workforce? No, going back to authenticity everyone with the capacity to exhibit leadership skills needs to find their own way to do it. Transparency, great listening skills and the ability to articulate a meaningful and shared vision are key. Trial and error are part of this and an understanding when something is working (and when it is not); in other words, self-awareness (for you and your organization). Here is a check for you – do you have a plaque up in your workplace with your mission and vision statements on it? Look to see if it has dust lining the top of it; if it does maybe it is time to check how well this is being used at your company. Insight and vision only work when they are relevant.
Do you need a title to impart insight and help motivate others? No, you need to have a vision for your self, your work, your project or your team and use that to support the leadership activities that are present. You can motivate people; encourage them to think differently or enable them to question things when they do not make sense. This is everyone’s role in an organization, not just “managements” and if you are doing it with a high degree of self-awareness and keen listening skills there is room for everyone to exercise their own brand of leadership without there being “too many chefs in the kitchen”. You also don’t need to be charismatic or a great public speaker; quiet people provide huge value in a world where people don’t stop talking (to paraphrase Susan Cain Quiet: The Power of Introverts). Introverts provide a perspective that is often far more reflective, revealing deep truths about how teams or organizations are choosing to pursue work. You do not need to be the loudest voice in the room; you need only exercise your voice when it counts.
In a nutshell leadership insight is the ability to inspire others to achieve things above and beyond what they thought they could do – starting with you.
Leadership is often correlated with mentorship or coaching, providing some form of assistance to others, supporting them while they increase their effectiveness and potential. However, not everyone in leadership knows how to do this or can do it consistently. In this third part in my series on leadership we’ll explore what it takes to be a leader who effectively nurtures others. Nurturing others sounds pretty easy. As easy as “my door is always open”, which we all know means, “my door is always open…until it’s closed because I am in meetings, on the phone, on business travel…”. One of my clients explained his organizations’ culture this way “our leaders are approachable, yes, but not accessible”; while the offer to assist was sincerely made, it was not possible to execute. This is not a surprise in today’s business environment, with work velocity increasing, shrinking margins and contracting workforces there is less opportunity to make a difference one-on-one in the lives of colleagues, peers and employees unless it is specifically prioritized.
So is that it? Is the key to effectively nurturing others creating the time for it? Yes, in part, but that is the easy part (easy being a relative term). The more intangible part of nurturing resides in the strength of ones’ interpersonal skills and how effectively you can apply them situationally. Being a true leader, one who can see above day-to-day work necessities to recognize when one of your team needs help, also implies that you can step away from your own needs and invest the emotional currency to see things from your employee or peers’ perspective. When a leader can do this you are not waiting for the individual to come to you, you are paying attention and able to proactively provide the signals needed to reinforce that your support is there. You are better able to ask the right kinds of questions in a timely manner that will proactively illuminate when someone may be struggling and could use some assistance (possibly even before they know they need it). You are able to display the right level of expression to build trust through authenticity.
This goes well beyond the “my door is always open” paradigm and thankfully so! While that used to be a stock message it has become a parody of itself (quipped in satirical productions the world over). Your door should always be “open”, if its not you should examine why. But we are not talking about a door are we? No we aren’t…and we never were. So lets communicate this important leadership message with the respect it deserves; let those around you know “I’ll be here when you need me to be here”. If you really want to make a strong statement then also add “I am often busy, but please let me decide how to prioritize my time by letting me know your needs, don’t try and decide for me or I won’t be of much help to you.” The other myth that is wrapped in this door-open convention is that individuals should be coming to you, but it creates a signal that when they do you will drop everything and attend to their needs – that is impossible to do consistently. This is what has so quickly soured “open-door” – it is noble to state you’ll be there in an immediate way for your employees, but if that is what you’ve committed to you’ve written a check you likely can’t cash. We’ve all frowned and shaken our heads at someone trying to get our attention while we were in a meeting or on the phone (everyone has done this, you don’t have to be in management to find yourself in this position). Urgent items will always make themselves heard, but an employee looking for the promised sounding board? You get one shot at that. If you frame it correctly and build a wider path that indicates to the employee to try more then once to get what they need you’ll be providing the leadership they need. If you were on the phone when they walked to your office or pinged you on instant message, follow-up with them to see what they needed, letting them know when you may be free for a few minutes. Encourage them to give you a time frame so you can prioritize correctly (sometimes you may need to help them with this). When you have communicated effectively with your team they will not get frustrated when you are not immediately accessible; your staff will demonstrate a measure of resiliency in putting effort behind making arrangements to secure your time and then use your time well.
The open door also implies that you will not be going to your staff - your employees have to come to you. When your aim is to nurture others it has to be a two way street. You need to check in and understand what is happening on the ground, see how people are feeling, ensure there is understanding and catching things while they are manageable. Removing impediments and paving the way for employees to be truly effective is what sets great leaders apart. If you do this regularly by engaging employees outside of meetings, chatting with them about their work (in a non-threatening way) you will cultivate accessibility. Doing this regularly also means it takes less time to provide supportive leadership. The fact that you interact with them in a balanced way (not just when there is a strong message to deliver) builds trust, you are also more transparent and can provide that interpersonal aspect of leadership that fosters good relations. This is not you becoming best friends with everyone on your team, helping them through a personal issue. This is you representing your organization in an accessible and authentic way, building your knowledge of what is happening and enabling individuals to be their best, and then getting out of their way while they do it.
Authenticity is a word we are seeing a lot in business these days, but what is authenticity? If we look at the dictionary definition of authentic we learn that it is “being of undisputed origin, genuine”. I think we can all agree that being genuine is a good practice. However, in working as a Coach I’ve seen that it isn’t always the easiest thing for people to do, especially at work. Some individuals have difficulty with being able to practice authenticity, they are concerned with how they are viewed by others and put a lot of effort into being what they perceive the other party wants or needs them to be, which impacts their ability to be genuine. Not everyone faces this concern in a professional capacity, but for those that do (even on a situational basis) they will quickly tell you one of the consequences of operating this way is that it is exhausting! Interestingly this is a concern that impacts all professionals and all levels (admin staff and CEO’s alike). Authenticity isn’t something everyone is immediately able to consistently practice in their profession. It takes practice.
Why might being authentic not be the natural way we tend to operate? Fear is what usually holds people back. Fear of rejection or of judgment, fear of looking silly, fear of not getting what we were sent in to get in a meeting. There are many factors involved in being authentic and we’ll take a look at them to determine what helps us to do this in a professional context, to transcend the fear, allowing each of us to be consistently genuine. Lets start with the basics, our own feelings of self-confidence.
There will be times we feel more confident about how to proceed then others, self confidence can be very situational; it is great when our self-confidence is present, but there are always instances when it deserts us. Couples everywhere will tell you that the magic phrase “we have to talk” will create a crisis of confidence. If your boss sends you a cryptic e-mail asking you to meet with him/her as soon as possible without stating why most people will feel anxiety. No matter how well things are going, or how well we know ourselves, life happens and occasionally we experience a confidence gap. Can we detect when we feel that gap and what its impact is on our ability to conduct ourselves? How does this feed into authenticity? Being able to be yourself is a key leadership skill, especially when you are practicing it under pressure and potentially during a physical response that may include an elevated heart rate, sweating, mild shaking, etc. This falls under the heading of self-management and it is key to consistently practicing leadership skills. Showing up for what may be a difficult conversation is a great step. Keeping your head about you before and during this conversation supports what you need to do during this conversation.
This requires you to be able to practice objectivity; a practice that begins before you even enter the conversation. The reason your significant other may want to speak to you could be as simple as needing assistance to iron out a wrinkle that popped up in your weekend plans; your boss may want to check on some miniscule data point of importance in their work. Remembering that not everything is about what you have done (or not done) as you head into these types of situations is key to remaining calm and feeling your self-confidence has got your back. You are good at what you do - center yourself in this knowledge. Being able to express yourself (and feeling like you can rely on your abilities to express yourself even in trying circumstances) is also key to being genuine. We all know those people who have faced a “firing squad” in a meeting and handled it with grace. They too were likely experiencing an elevated heart rate, etc. but they didn’t allow that to interfere in their ability to remain objective and assertively (not aggressively) conduct a conversation that lead to a positive outcome. Practice makes perfect, no one does this right the first few times; the fact that you strive to improve as you go is also a key leadership skill and one that shows up in authenticity – resiliency.
Authenticity is also present when we chose to think beyond our own needs and towards the greater needs of the situation. One of the most powerful phrases you can carry with you into a conversation is “I don’t know, but I will find out”. This can be used when you understand that having an immediate answer is less important then putting effort into finding the right answer. Many people believe that being a leader means you have all the answers immediately to hand, certainly we see this practiced quite often by political leaders (they are coached to be sure of themselves in press scrums and briefings, doesn’t always make them right). However, a great leader can look you in the eye and say, “that is a good point, I’ll need to think about it”. This practice shows up in many different ways. I attended a talk from a leading professional in HR recently and he began his presentation by letting the audience know it had been several years since he addressed an audience this large and he was a little nervous. Rather then causing a crisis of faith with respect to the individuals’ qualifications it allowed the audience as a whole to embrace the speaker. Because he practiced transparency we (as an audience) had a deeper belief in the material and expertise he brought forward. We trusted him. Transparency is a very powerful tool in being authentic.
Lastly, great leaders will always strive for the win-win. They will look towards doing the right things for the right reasons, whether they like the actions they will need to complete to get there or not. Going back to the example in my previous blog about allowing someone to merge in front of you in heavy traffic, it may not always be what you want to do, but it is the most socially responsible thing to do. Authentic leaders can make that call and help others to exercise this level of decision making as well.
There is a lot of value in being genuine with yourself and others, but how does authenticity support leadership? It is a key factor in how you “show up”, how accessible you are to others and increases trust. Most of all an authentic leader serves as a role model for moral and fair behavior, something we are looking for from our professional relationships (and businesses in general). Authenticity also allows leaders to consistently exercise a transparent approach, which builds confidence in their leadership, whether you are a colleague, client or employee. How will you exercise authenticity today?
Carleen Hicks is a Human Resource professional and certified EQ-i 2.0 Practitioner.
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.