I wanted to call this Leadership for Dummies, but that title was already taken. Looking through some of the other leadership improvement offerings, it boggles the mind how we’ve managed to take a subject whose basics haven’t changed in a few millennia and written a gazillion books that make it a more difficult concept to get a handle on. But we just keep writing.
Sure, new hurdles arise, technology changes, business environments change, the economy changes, we invent new ways of doing things, etc., but human nature hasn’t changed since the time of Adam and Eve and neither has what it takes to lead other humans.
As leaders, we often find ourselves in new situations – positions, companies, teams – that require us to adapt how we lead, but nothing changes what we need to do to be an effective leader. Let’s stick to the basics: We have to know where we’re leading; we have to be able to communicate that to others; and we have to be able to motivate others to help us achieve the undertaking. Plain and simple. From the team leader on the shop floor to the C-suites, the basics don’t change.
Do we need help developing a clear vision so we know where we’re leading? Often, yes. Do we need to continually improve our communication skills to ensure our expectations are clearly understood? Absolutely! Is it important to build a culture of trust and authenticity that allows us to give and get honest feedback and helps us know what makes our team feel rewarded? Damned straight it is!
So why the review of Leadership 101? Because there is so much “new” material out there about how we’ll need to lead in the coming post-pandemic era that uses big, strategic sounding words to obfuscate the leadership basics. Here’s an example I ran across from a well-known and respected business publication (paraphrased to remove the fancy language):
We’ll have to adjust our strategic vision to account for recent changes in our business environment while remaining faithful to our company’s core values.
We’ll need to communicate this new vision throughout the organization – including executable objectives as required – especially leveraging the media platforms that have matured over the last year (i.e., virtual town halls and team meetings).
We’ll need to reassess how to keep our followers motivated to perform and succeed in a way that helps us to achieve the vision (or at least keep from demotivating them).
In other words, successful leaders will need to do in the future what they’ve been able to do in the past. Might have well told us that to wash our hair in the future we’ll need to apply shampoo, lather, and rinse (repeat as necessary).
I’ve been helping a former colleague (now a senior executive in the Pentagon) adjust to a new leadership position this past year, and to say that there have been some challenges leading and building relationships with the team she’s inherited would be an understatement. Some were motivated professionals weary of slogging through the bureaucratic morass while others were entrenched, low-performing functionaries who fertilized the morass while waiting for retirement. You get the picture.
It’s been both fun and rewarding to watch her overcome the hurdles and hit her stride. I asked recently how things would be different with the changing ratio of face-to-face to virtual work and her boss’ upcoming short leave of absence… other than having to attend more unproductive meetings.
Without giving it much thought, she replied that she understood the direction the Department wanted her to advance her portfolio in and was clear on her boss’ priorities. She’d laid out her expectations to the team, including regular progress checks, and now she was going to get out of their way and let them do their work. They trusted her to have their backs and knew her motivation was to help them be successful.
Sounds a lot like Leadership 101, doesn’t it?
Leadership isn’t difficult, but we continue to make it more difficult to understand than we have to. On the other hand, leading people is hard, and we can only get better at it through practice. Why do we think we’re any different than athletes or welders or doctors and lawyers? The key to being successful is to start with the basics and continue practicing throughout our careers – or for the rest of our lives.
Leadership dummies? Not if we stop making it so difficult.
We Texans were a little bit whiney last month during SNOWVID-21, but most of us are better now that we’re back to the old normal of the global pandemic. There are still some recovery efforts and healing going on that are teaching lessons “we” thought we’d already known. That’s the royal “we” because it’s less damning than saying I.
Like untold numbers of Texans, my wife slipped on the ice last month and broke a bone. It’s the shoulder attached to her dominant hand rendering her mostly unable to fend for herself for the last few weeks. I thought the occasional use of humor would take the edge off of her frustration; apparently, I used the phrase peeling her grapes and feeding her bon bons one too many times.
How often do we use humor around the workplace that not everyone thinks is funny? Hey, just because they don’t have a sense of humor doesn’t mean I’m not funny, right? In last month’s At C-Level, Kevin Berchelman wrote about being more aware as senior leaders of how their “suggestions” impact others. Same goes for humor… and any other little comments the boss makes. We can never forget as leaders everything we say or do is being paid attention to.
I can hear a lot of eye rolling out there accompanied by disappointment that I’m getting all politically correct. I’m not. My point is a leader’s style may have been accepted for years, and people say, “Well, that’s just Kevin being Kevin.” But just because what’s said and done has been accepted by others, it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.
When it comes to humor, no one likes to be made fun of, and whether or not others think it’s mean spirited they’ll certainly be on guard for when it’s their time to be the butt of the joke. I’m not advocating a humor-free workplace; I’m saying that humor – and anything we think – will probably better received if we don’t express it the very second we think it.
Enough about humor. Another example: someone leaves a meeting to retrieve something he forgot at his desk. As he leaves, the boss makes a comment that is interpreted as less than complementary. The boss doesn’t think anything about it because it’s always been accepted, but the result is a trust killer: everyone else around the table now knows that the boss talks about them behind their backs. Not acceptable.
A board president makes an innocent comment to a new board member in response to his suggestion: “That’s not really the way we do it here.” The comment is accepted by the other board members, but the president just proved that she’s not interested in diverse thought and confirmed what the new member already anxiously thought… he’s an outsider. Accepted but not acceptable.
We roll our eyes in response to a suggestion. We just devalued that person’s experience and professionalism in front of others (at least that’s the perception). Public humiliation is always a morale booster.
We nonchalantly comment about someone’s clothing. Okay, Judgey McJudgeface, we just made others self-conscious as they assume we’re judging the way they dress. We just showed our genuine selves to them. Again, accepted behavior for years but not acceptable for a leader trying to build team cohesiveness and trust.
These are not big things to us, and we’re usually not even aware we’re doing something unacceptable. And because we’ve long accepted that behavior from others – including from those who lead us – we accept if from ourselves. It’s become a bad habit that we don’t know we should break.
And like most bad habits, breaking them isn’t difficult (just stop it!), but it’s not easy either. It requires us to consider others before we let that thought whirling around in our head like a centrifuge come flying out of our mouth.
As leaders, our small but unacceptable words and deeds are usually – and unfortunately – accepted by others. But they certainly shouldn’t be by us.
We have to be intentional about demonstrating acceptable behavior. After all, leading by example isn’t an option.
This is definitely not one of those academic treatises about the difference between leadership and management. I outright despise those.
Nor is it a “thought piece” similar to those written in the last year about leading and managing in and through a crisis. Lord knows we’ve had plenty of them crowding our inboxes.
Think back – just about a year ago, we were all facing a crisis of global proportions of which we had no control. We had to react and respond at the same time, and we were all taxed just to keep toilet paper in our bathrooms, not to mention our businesses running while keeping our workforce and our customers safe. For many businesses (if not most) managing our response to the crisis was more of a life-or-death issue for the company than it was for our people.
Here in Texas we pride ourselves on getting through one crises – economic, natural, and political disasters are all second nature to us now. Believe me when I say we can lead and manage the hell out of a crisis.
And then hell Texas froze over.
Now 2020 definitely sucked, and 2021 was off to a shaky start, but just when we thought we were hitting our stride with COVID – balancing work between home and office, keeping stores and restaurants open without endangering anyone’s health, and keeping industry producing and the economy running – Texas came to a screeching halt.
It happens all over the world because Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate, and some equally disruptive catastrophic events are mankind’s own doing. The question for us then is: How do we lead when the shit hits the fan? Crisis sucks; chaos eats crisis for lunch (with a nod to Peter Drucker).
So, what do we do when crisis turns to chaos?
The first thing we want to do well is manage the hell out of it. Calm heads with excellent managerial skills find ways to keep producing, delivering, selling, operating, etc., the best we can. Lessons learned when we tame chaos and crisis back to normal day-to-day operations can quickly become marketplace advantages. If we don’t do it well, we’re probably just like everyone else.
How’s that different that what we did most of 2020? Not much, except that for much of 2020 we weren’t that concerned about our workforce freezing to death or being physically unable to leave their homes. Not to mention how little concern we had for their home repair projects.
I’m not down on managers. Often underappreciated and over maligned, managers get a lot of flak for not being good leaders. But it’s our own fault when our great doers aren’t great managers and great managers aren’t great leaders if we haven’t given them the tools to be effective. Here’s an example:
A local hospital department manager I know (a good doer) responded to the chaos around him by contacting each of his employees in the hospital and the surrounding clinics under his control when they could report to work (and left their supervisors out of the loop). But he didn’t ask a single one how they were doing. When one of the employees reported she had fallen on the ice and broken her arm, he only asked for how long she might miss work.
Remember the childhood game Follow the Manager? Remember the old war movies where the hero crawled out of the trenches and managed the charge into the heart of the enemy’s gunfire? How about when Ken Blanchard said, “The key to successful management today is influence, not authority.”
No, because none of those are real.
In crisis-turned-chaos, a leader’s concern has to be first and foremost about people. Does it suck to have to lead and manage simultaneously? Sometimes. Suck it up, buttercup. That’s what they pay us the big bucks for. And we can’t manage or lead without dealing with people, so when we’re trying to do both at the same time in the midst of chaos, here are four key skills to rely on:
Make sure your people are safe. The military has a few institutionalized methods of reaching every single servicemember under an individual’s charge. It starts at the top and branches out so that at each level of supervision, everyone is accounted for and provided critical information. If our organizations don’t have a way to pass accountable information from the top to the bottom other than sending ignorable emails, we’re doing it wrong. In chaos like this, a leader’s number one concern should be: are all my people safe. The next should be:
Ask if they need help that you can provide. We may not be in a position to provide anything but moral support. On the other hand, we might have a list of resources they can reach out to. Totally dependent on us and/or our organization, but the least we can do is listen to their needs. Leaders listen and then:
Admit vulnerability. I couldn’t get out of my neighborhood for a week, so I couldn’t rescue my daughter who was without power and water, and she couldn’t get to us. Hell yeah, I felt It’s okay to admit stuff’s happening that we can’t control and don’t know when it’s going to end, but leaders do it in a way that doesn’t portray helplessness or hopelessness. Leaders acknowledge the difficulty while portraying the confidence that we’re going to make it through it stronger. I know it sounds cheesy, but people are looking for a confident anchor in their leader, not an uninflated life preserver. Finally:
Execute 360-degree leadership. Once we’ve accounted for all our people and done what we could to assure them they’re not alone, reach out to peers to see how they’re doing and then call our boss. Like a preemptive strike to keep from being inundated by incoming calls yourself. Is it elf-serving to call your boss to check in? Maybe if that’s the motive, but in this case, it’s just good leadership.
Managers are about the organization; leaders are about the organization’s people. We don’t often sit around ruminating about responding to chaos, but it probably wouldn’t hurt once in a while. Because our response will reveal whether We Care About People on the wall is a core value or only a trite slogan.
It’s up to you, leaders.
One thing for sure, there are a lot of Texans who look back fondly on the days when we only had a global pandemic to deal with.
Don’t you wish we could flip a switch on the anxieties we felt last year as easily as we turn the page on the calendar? As I looked forward at 2021, I looked back over the last five years in our lives and saw this truth: every year has ups and downs that affect our mood at work; they just change over time. Not rocket surgery I know, but I needed the reminder.
Like leading by example, we don’t have a choice on whether our mood affects those around us and those who work for us. It does. Now I can’t guarantee a positive outlook and motivation will fill our workplaces with butterflies and rainbows, but there can be no doubt that a leader’s dour mood directly affects their employees’ morale and engagement.
I’m a strict Calvinist. In my favorite comic strip of all time, Calvin sums this up nicely: “Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around.”
I used to think I was a pretty positive boss to work for. Then one day a mentor called me out when he said, “Kevin, you’re just not prone to happiness, are you?” A huge part of a leader’s role is inspiring others to follow in pursuit of a vision. We make it really hard for them to be inspired if they don’t believe we are.
No, I’m not trying to resurrect the old myth about leaders having to be charismatic – there’s plenty of evidence to debunk that. But from the C-suites to the referent leaders far down in the organization, others are taking their emotional cues from us. Not a believer? Reflect for a second on a couple of the very best leaders you known: were they positive and encouraging in a way that make you want to do and be better, or did their interactions feel perfunctory and their tone and manner… like a thin veneer covering their anxiety.
Here’s a test: we all come to work at less than our best once in a while. On the rare occasion we do – regardless of whether we’re bothered by a work-related issue or something that happened outside the office – do people ask is something wrong? If not, it either means they’re used to us being in a bad mood or we’re not as approachable as we should be.
So how do we do it? How do we model a positive attitude when it feels like the world is throwing us more curveballs than we can hit? Do we just grin and bear it? Fake it ‘til we make it?
I have a better strategy for 2021. Here are a few tried and true behaviors that can improve our outlook and make us more positive leaders in (and out of) the workplace:
First and foremost: no complaining! Psychologists generally agree that our brains are hardwired to spend more mental energy and time on negative events than we do on good news. Complaining can easily become a habit, so we have to intentionally resist that negativity bias and if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. (Thanks, mom.)
Keep the vocabulary positive. Speaking of saying things, we can be honest about substandard efforts without sounding accusatory or hostile. “I think there’s a problem with this” and “I don’t think this is your best work” have a completely different impact than “You screwed this up” and “This is a piece of crap.”
Avoid emotional vacuum cleaners. I don’t mean the kind of emotional vacuum where it feels like nothing can fill an inner void; I mean the kind of person who can suck the joy out of a Superbowl victory parade. A common trait of good leaders is being empathetic, but that doesn’t mean we need to spend more time with Negative Nancy or Derek Downer than necessary. Maintain a positive boundary and move on.
Don’t lose sight of the long game. As in don’t sweat the small stuff. (Thanks again, mom.) Many of our problems at work are short-term and in the big scheme of things aren’t that big of a deal. After we deal with a problem, will it still seem like a big deal next week? Next month? Next year? The Greek philosopher Epictetus reminds us “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
Finally, put your own mask on first. Like donning emergency oxygen masks on an airplane, our heads have to be in the game enough to recognize when others are struggling. If they’re showing up at work anxious and frustrated and their performance or behavior is suffering, we’re liable to take the easy way out and address only what we see. That’s especially true if not taking good enough care ourselves.
Our folks deserve our best efforts in giving them a positive workplace where they can be successful. Are we giving it to them?
Kinda like Kevin Berchelmann described a business decision-making style in June’s At C-Level as “Ready, Fire, Aim!,” “On your marks, go, get set… ” is a planning style often used when preparing for the new year just after the nick of time. In past years, that style put us behind the eight ball initially, but we could recover with hard work and good leadership.
Guess what? 2021 won’t be like past years because the 2020 eight ball never stopped rolling. How we start the year depends mostly on our attitude: Is January 1, 2021 the 307th day of March 2020 (feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it?), or are there only 358 shopping days left until Christmas 2021?
Good leaders know that no new year will be like last year – or the year before that or the years before that – and are prepared to deal with the unexpected. An easy measure of that in 2020 is how our long organizations took to go from meetings around the conference room table to virtually in front of a computer screen.
If ever a year was going to start with VUCA, 2021 is it.
Here are some changes we know we’ll have to deal with, so let’s be ready for the unknown:
The 117th Congress will be sworn in on January 3, 2021. A new Congress means new rules that will affect our business in new ways. Are we agile enough to pivot?
Our competitors will develop new ways of doing business that will give them a marketplace advantage. Do we have processes in place to develop new ways of our own?
We’re going to have personnel turnover – some painful and some cause for celebration. Have we prepared by developing successors?
On the other hand, some things that stay the same may still take us by surprise:
Political strife isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
We still have a global pandemic to deal with.
There will be economic uncertainty that will make the stock markets go up and down and affect our businesses.
My wife will always get her way when we have a difference of opinion (I’m a leadership consultant; we don’t have conflicts).
Bill George at Harvard Business School writes that a leader’s answer to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity in business can be found in his VUCA 2.0 – Vision, Understanding, Courage, and Adaptability – all traits of an effective leader.
So, where do we start in 2021? With something else that will be the same: the leadership basics that haven’t changed in a few millennia.
First, remember that our success (and the organization’s) depends on the people who work for us being successful. We can never forget who’s work keeps the day-to-day business operating. The majority of our effort should be focused on creating an environment where they can shine.
Set clear expectations. The Ambiguity in VUCA often starts with us not defining success for our team. We shouldn’t expect the results we were looking for if they don’t know what success looks like.
We can’t effectively lead someone who doesn’t trust us. If we aren’t positive and caring, or don’t have integrity or respect for the individuals who work for us, they will never trust us.
We have to get better at communication. Especially now when face-to-face communication is limited, our communication style needs to include a lot more listening than ever before. The people who work for us will have ideas for improvement and innovation long before we do (they probably already have them), so ask… and then listen for understanding to what they say.
Leading by example isn’t an option. When things get crazy (like they have been), we can’t expect our team to stay calm and focused if we don’t. We won’t have all the answers (we never have) and shouldn’t be so hesitant to admit it. And DON’T tell people to calm down! That never, ever works; re-focus them instead.
The world as we know it today won’t be the same as the world six months from now. Never has been and never will be. For our companies, it’s important that we hone the leadership skills to deal with the VUCA we are continually thrust into. For our people, it’s imperative that we don’t neglect the leadership basics in the process.