Today I started thinking about what are the most important things I have learned about leadership over the last 25 years. I have led large teams, small teams, project teams, departments, business teams, sports team, international teams, virtual teams and local teams.
I have written, coached and trained on leadership for the past 5 years, which has made me examine what I believe is good leadership. It has caused me to study and learn about different styles and contexts for leadership, which forces you to increase your understanding.
Looking back here are the top five things that I have learned about leadership which have had the biggest impact on me as a leader and how I lead.
It seems funny to have to write this, but it’s amazing how many people in leadership positions think it’s about them. Yes leadership is important, but it’s the teams that do all the work, it’s the team that deliver the results, and as leaders we need to take care of our teams.
We need to engage them, tell them what’s in it for them, why it’s important, because without them or their engagement there are no results, there is no progress, and there is no leadership.
I can’t say it any simpler than that.
Speaking of simplicity, I think this is one of the key contributors to successful leadership, because simplicity leads to understanding, understand leads to belief and belief leads to action. The simpler we can keep things the easier it is for our teams to become engaged, and understand what needs to be done in order to be successful.
The challenge is that we have a natural tendency to over complicate things, to find complexity where there is none, or to think that complex solutions require complex answers.
I fell into this trap too as a leader. I understood that everyone was different and that maybe we need a different approach for difference people. But that’s me now trying to apply a complex solution to a complex problem. It is practically impossible to have a different style of leadership for each and every different type of person.
The simple approach, which is actually quite difficult to do, is to take your leadership up a level and find those commonalities that work with everyone. When I say up a level, I don’t mean improve it and take it to the next level, although that is one of the byproducts of doing this. I mean find the simple things that work with everyone, such as providing clarity, giving them space, and giving them support when they need it. These are the types of thing that work with everyone, and consequently simplify, and improve your approach.
At one of the first leadership training I ever took the message was communicate, communicate, communicate. At the time I thought this was a bit of an overstatement, but actually over time I have realized it’s been more of an understatement. In fact, I would go so far as to say we cannot over communicate. Now that’s not to say we cannot communicate the wrong things, or that all communication is good. No, it means that we need to be communicating our goals, our mission and vision, explaining why these are important, and we also need to make sure that we communicate progress too. Communication of progress let’s the team see the fruits of their labours, it helps to motivate and encourage them to keep going.
If I would change one thing from that initial statement it would be to mention that communication is a two way street, and a key component of communication is also listening. Listening helps to show people that they are valued and respected, it allows them to feel involved, which helps to increase their commitment. It can also lead to us learning things such as issues or concerns that need to be addressed.
Consistency is one of the biggest builders of trust for leaders. Being consistent means that we always look to do the same or similar things in the similar situations. It also means that we treat people consistently and that we don’t play favourites. Consistency makes us predictable and give our teams confidence in how we will react or respond in any given situation, which then makes it easy for them to know how they should act, and how we will react to their actions.
The alternative, inconsistency, this leads to doubt, hesitations and the erosion of trust. I worked for a boss who, for the same piece of work, one day it could be the best thing he’d ever seen, and the next he could scream and shout that it was the worst thing he had ever seen. People used to hate to have to present because they never knew what good looked like, and no one ever volunteered for anything.
Being consistent in our approach and in our dealings with different people does them a favour and it puts them more at ease. It doesn’t mean lowering our standards, it just means keeping our standards, irrespective of the day or who is presenting.
I have probably written more articles about recognition than any other aspect of leadership. This partly due to the power of recognition, but also partly because of how many people I have worked with that choose to withhold recognition. They are only willing to recognize truly amazing work, which whilst I understand their thinking, I also think it’s flawed. I have also seen people withhold recognition because they never received any recognition themselves, which for me is completely perverse and also self fulfilling.
I have learned two important things about recognition. The first is that you need to start to recognize effort and then slowly raise the bar, and if you do that peoples performance will follow. Secondly, the more recognition you give, the more you will end up receiving.
Recognition is the key to continuous improvement, and leaders also need to become Chief Recognition Officers. What gets recognized gets repeated and we need to start with effort, as it’s repeated effort that leads to small successes, and small successes that lead to big success.
When I look back at this list what strikes me most is how simple these things are to do, and the return on the investment of doing.
I’d be really interested to hear from others, what are the most important things that they have learned on their leadership journeys and what benefits did they bring. Also, how did you learn them. Much of what I learned was experiential and learned whilst leading rather than from any leadership training course.