A Refresher Course on Leadership

My last post on the shaping power of leaders made me think a little bit more about what leadership is.  Over the years, I've seen both good and bad examples of leadership, as well as quite a few people who seemed confused on the differences between good and bad leadership.  If you're one of those, then here's a handy reference to help you out:

Not leadership: 
  • "Rallying the troops" to work the weekend when you've done nothing all week to help them.
  • Creating a false sense of urgency to trick people into working harder.
  • Measuring success based upon who comes in earliest, stays latest, and complains the most about how hard they're working.
  • Giving your team the information that they need to understand the real deadlines that are driving their work, then giving them the tools to complete their work on time.
  • Removing obstacles to your team's progress as soon as they appear.
  • Driving timely decision-making so that work can be finished by Friday.
  • Measuring outcomes, not effort.
Good leaders get a lot out of their people, not because they make them work harder, but because they inspire and teach them to work better.  The highest-performing teams aren't those that put in the longest hours -- though long hours may be necessary at times -- but those that deliver the best outcomes.  I would rather have a team that works 30 hours a week and consistently produces a high-quality, valuable product than a team that works 100 hours a week and consistently misses the mark.  Any time a leader starts talking about how hard his team is working, watch out: they're heading for the wrong path.

Not leadership: 
  • Doing someone's work for them because "that's the only way it will be done correctly."
  • Doing your team's work for them because they are too poorly trained, incompetent, or lazy to do it for themselves.
  • Teaching people to work for themselves and allowing them to do things differently than you would have done them, as long as the outcome still meets the need.
  • Looking for weaknesses in your team's skill sets, then filling them with training and coaching.
  • Being patient when someone isn't as fast or as good as you are, so that they have the opportunity to get there someday.
The best leaders achieve great things because they're working through their followers, multiplying their efforts five-, ten-, a hundredfold by equipping other talented people with the skills to do the job, then inspiring them with a grand vision to fulfill.  The person who does everyone's job for them quickly becomes their own limiting factor: their success only stretches as far as their personal energy can extend.  Show your team where you want them to go, equip them for the journey, and send them off.  If they reach the destination successfully, then it really doesn't matter if they took the exact path you would have taken.

Not leadership: 
  • Allowing an individual to fail because you're not comfortable having a hard conversation with them to tell them they're failing.
  • Allowing a team to fail because you're too nice to fire someone who really needs to be fired.
  • Being your team's buddy when they need you to be their boss.
  • Setting clear expectations and holding people accountable for delivering on them.
  • Freeing high performers to reach their potential by surrounding them with other high performers and removing people who can't or won't keep up with them.
  • Recognizing that being the boss sometime means that you have to make the tough decisions that no one else is able to make.  That's why they pay you the big bucks.
Study after study has shown that successful people want to work with other successful people, and when they do, their collective output is significantly higher than simply the sum of what they could have produced on their own.  If you've ever played a team sport, or even gone on a hike with young children, then you know how frustrating it is to be held back by someone who either can't keep up or doesn't want to put forth the effort required to keep pace with the group.  Being a good leader requires active management of team chemistry and performance, which sometimes requires some uncomfortable conversations with people who aren't meeting expectations.  The good news is, if you're clear about what you expect, then that chronic underperformer shouldn't be surprised when you free him to pursue other opportunities.

Not leadership: 
  • Yelling.
  • Criticizing people for their mistakes in front of their peers.
  • Making jokes at people's expense when they're in no position to do the same with you.
  • Rallying your team by telling what you want them to do rather than focusing on what you don't want them to do.
  • Praising people publicly when they do a good job and discussing their shortfalls privately when they make a mistake.
  • Using humor to defuse tension and make work enjoyable, but not at the expense of someone over whom you have authority.  Being willing to laugh at yourself, especially when you make mistakes.
It's unfortunate that this still needs to be said, but yelling is not leading.  It may garner short-term results, but the long-term damage is never worth the short-term gains.  No one likes to be yelled at, and talented people will always leave an oppressive environment, leaving you with the people who have nowhere else to go.

The same goes for making jokes at your team's expense or singling people out for their differences.  You may think they're laughing with you, but do they really have a choice?  When the boss tells a joke, people laugh, even when they're cringing inside.  Many times in my career, I've worked with people who didn't understand this and thought that they had a great, joking relationship with their underlings, never realizing that the jokes were rarely bidirectional.   I like to use humor myself, but I'm always conscious of this dynamic and the impact my words might have on those who consider me an authority figure, whether they report to me or not.  While it's possible to create a friendly, humor-filled dynamic on a team, the good leader is always conscious of the weight of his words, using self-deprecation as his favorite tool and allowing two jokes at his expense for every one directed at someone else. As Cyrano de Bergerac said:
So far –
If you let fall upon me one hard word,
Out of that height – you crush me! 

If you're a leader, then I hope this little leadership primer has helped clear some things up for you.  If you're among the led (and aren't we all, at some level or another?) and you feel that your leader could use a refresher course, feel free to print this out and tape it where they can see it.  You might want to do it anonymously, though, in case they haven't read Cyrano.
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