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If there is one thing I have learned about leadership, it’s that there is no secret formula or silver bullet that works for everyone in every situation. There is an abundance of leadership advice out there on what to do and what not to do, but in my case, it seemed like no matter how much I heard or read about leadership, none of the lessons really stuck until a little later than when I really needed them. I think sometimes you just have to experience what it’s like to not have things work out before you are ready to discover what’s in the way and be willing to take on new attitudes and habits to take your leadership to the next level. As the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear!”
For me, the greatest period of professional growth came at about the 20-year mark into my career when I was the plant manager at a plant that wasn’t doing well, and we were trying desperately to turn our results around. It was a tough time for all of us on the team and I certainly would not have chosen to have that experience, but in retrospect, it resulted in the most significant growth and development that I have ever experienced in any other period of my career.
I’d like to share a few of the lessons I learned during that time in the form of the following 8 principles, not as a formula for success, but to provoke some thoughts that might resonate with you. I encourage you to take one or more of these principles, or a variation of them, that best applies to your situation and be intentional about applying them:
Principle 1: Leaders must declare themselves the greatest barrier to progress and actively work toward getting themselves out of the way.
This is the most profound leadership lesson I have ever learned. The intent here is not to deny the presence of real problems that are holding you and your team back, it is to gain access to the part of you that can influence those problems by first taking responsibility for having created them, having contributed to them, or at the very least having tolerated them for as long as you have. Are you willing to truly declare yourself the barrier?
Principle 2: Leaders must declare a bold future into existence.
No matter how awful our past has been, or how unbearable our present situation is, what determines our state of mind is the future that we anticipate. The bolder the vision we believe in, the more enthusiasm we will have about achieving it. Even the naysayers in the organization are secretly inspired when they see that their leader truly believes in a brighter future. Although it’s important to pay proper attention to solving the major problems that are right in front of us, without the context of a bold declaration, we perpetuate a survival mentality and will never inspire the organization to go for a cause that is worth going the extra mile. What bold future do you believe in? Have you publicly declared it to your organization?
Principle 3: Leaders must care about their employees as whole people.
When leaders actively demonstrate a genuine interest in the well-being of their employees, something magical happens. All of a sudden, employees are no longer interested in just complying with the rules to stay out of trouble. They become interested in bringing their whole self to work and contributing to the success of the team. Of course, if this approach is part of a strategy to get more work out of people, it won’t feel genuine and it won’t work, but if it is done based on an authentic desire to improve the lives of employees, it will result in a phenomenal impact on the culture and results of the organization. How do you demonstrate that your care and concern for your team members extends beyond their contributions as employees and into their well-being as a person?
Principle 4: Leaders must not have an entitlement mentality when it comes to their employees’ commitment.
While it is perfectly right for leaders to expect their employees to comply with performance standards, leaders are not entitled to their employees going above and beyond the call of duty. That kind of commitment that leads to breakthrough results is priceless and it cannot be bought. It can only be earned by creating the right conditions in which employees offer up their commitment for free. Bosses who complain about their employees not being fully engaged must take a hard look at themselves and take responsibility for the environment they are creating. Are you willing to take personal responsibility for creating a culture in which everyone is willing to offer up their full commitment?
Principle 5: Leaders must openly demonstrate their willingness to receive feedback on their effectiveness and act on it.
It would be naïve to never ask our customers what they thought of our products and services, and still expect to remain competitive. By the same token, as “servant leaders,” we must have formal and informal avenues to gauge our performance. This is often done through annual satisfaction surveys, 360’s, and other formal mechanisms. While these avenues do add value and are necessary parts of the process, there is nothing like regularly and informally seeking feedback from the customers of our leadership services to understand and act on their feedback. What informal mechanisms are you using to get a read on how your team members perceive you and actively demonstrate that you do appreciate and act on their feedback?
Principle 6: Leadership must actively extend trust and respect.
This can be done through symbolic gestures that send a clear signal to the entire organization that the leader considers their team/people trustworthy. Eliminating symbols of mistrust are a great place to start. There are many organizations that operate without timecards and on the basis of trust that employees will record their time correctly. Yet, countless organizations cannot even fathom the thought of implementing such a system for the fear of abuse and wrong-doing. Extending trust when no risk is involved means nothing. It is demonstrating the courage to take some risk that let's people know you consider them trustworthy. The natural consequence is that they extend trust to you as a leader. How are you demonstrating to your team members that you trust them to do the right thing?
Principle 7: Leadership must break down silos, and role model and expect collaboration.
If the organization is always looking for direction from the top, the limit to what it can accomplish is determined by the leader’s capacity. Expecting collaboration, and coaching and empowering all layers of leadership on how to create synergy results in an abundance mentality and unleashes the unlimited power to create. How will you ensure that your teams have common objectives and are working together to optimize the team’s results rather than their functional objectives?
Principle 8: Leaders must champion culture shift by altering the language in their organization.
We process what is happening and how we should respond to it through our individual interpretations that lead to, and are influenced by, our internal dialogue. Our communication with others can either exacerbate our disempowering views or replace them with more empowering thoughts that lead to a different set of actions and results. Leaders role model the shift in the language of the organization from one of “being in the stands,” (talking about the game), to one of “being on the court,” (playing the game). How will you alter your communication to create an empowering context for your team?
The Bottom Line:
Leaders play a crucial role in shaping the culture and influencing the results of organizations. While I don't believe in cookie cutter leadership techniques, I believe it is important for every leader to ponder a few timeless and universal leadership principles and evaluate how they apply to him/her. Being intentional about declaring a bold future into existence, taking responsibility for what is not going well, and being accountable for winning the hearts and minds of team members over are among the few lessons that have served me well in my journey as a servant leader. I hope that you find the 8 principles listed in this post thought provoking and actionable.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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