Leadership must be earned. But first, it must be taught.

During one of our recent webinars, one of our attendees posed this question: “How do you handle those in management positions who push down future leaders because of their own personal agenda to be promoted?”

Great question.

We’d all love to think this type of manager only exists in Hollywood movies, but sadly it’s probably more the rule than the exception. Especially in organizations with limited individual accountability. Like large companies where individuals fade into the burled woodwork. Or in bureaucratic organizations like hospitals or government agencies.

However, in high performance organizations, this type of leader is incredibly short-sighted. High performance companies require results. The level of results generated only by highly effective teams. These teams are made up of employees who simply don’t work for leaders they don’t trust.

Recently, we worked with a company struggling with many of the same problems Cynthia McCauley (a senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership) identifies as symptoms of a company lacking leadership.

  • There is lack of agreement on priorities.
  • People feel as if they are being pulled in different directions.
  • There’s inertia; people may be busy, but they aren’t making progress.
  • Things are in disarray: deadlines are missed, rework is required, there’s duplication of effort.
  • People feel isolated from one another.
  • Groups compete with one another.
  • Only the easy things get done.
  • Everyone is just asking “what’s in it for me?
  • People are not “walking the talk.”

Do any of these symptoms exist within your organization? Consider executing an anonymous employee engagement survey to help you identify problem areas. This is where we started with our new client.

The executive team had had previous conversations with their employees and managers. As expected, everything seemed to be perfect. So why was there still inertia? Seated across from you, employees will tell you what they think you want to hear, but when they’ve been guaranteed anonymity, the real truth comes out.

We discovered 26% of their managers felt unprepared to transition into management roles. They were afraid to admit it, feeling it revealed some sort of personal weakness. They made some assumptions about what being a leader meant. Many enforced their own agendas through threats and intimidation. They failed to lead by example. They executed their management roles well, but their teams were inefficient. As Peter Drucker famously stated that “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

It wasn’t entirely their fault. They did what they THOUGHT leaders were supposed to do. They didn’t realize that leadership can be taught. There are natural leaders, of course, but most leaders are created. Our client’s managers had not received any leadership training. They had been trained on how to execute their job, but not their role.
Effective leaders work constantly to improve through education, self-study, training, experience and coaching. It’s a process, not a seminar. For our client, we implemented trainings, but, more importantly, coached them through real-life scenarios so they could learn through applied examples. As a result, their leadership learned:

  • To put relationships first. Not to just establish relationships but to nurture them by making time for their colleagues and those they mentored. They become aware that making respectful connections is critical to creating a successful transformation. They begin to genuinely care about the development of their employees. They go to bat for them with the executive team. They learn to ask questions about their feelings, not just how their doing, and genuinely care about the answer.
  • To communicate in meaningful ways. They understand how both their roles and the roles of each of their team members fit into the broader goals of the organization so they can communicate it clearly and coach it regularly.
  • To keep their egos in check. After one of our workshops, we watched as our new leaders began to talk about themselves humbly while sparing no adjective in their praise for their employees. They immediately connected with their employees. Remarkably, they began to speak the same way about their teams when talking to their customers and the customers began to connect as well. In Danial Coleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, he writes of the two human brains: one that thinks and one that feels. By changing their practices, our new leaders began to connect through feeling thus creating stronger relationships.
  • To use humor. Humor strengthens relationships and has even been shown to improve the health of the individual and those around him or her. It builds positive emotions and helps reduce feelings of anger, depression or anxiety. For our client, we implemented our Executive Improv training. While improv is often associated with humor, it really enables leaders to listen more accurately, think on their feet and work with those around them. Humor is just a happy side benefit.
  • To lead with their strengths. Highly effective leaders learn to identify their unique blend of strengths and skills and leverage these to better the team, She surrounds herself with those who have complementary strengths.
  • To live with their strengths. Since leaders recognize their strengths, they also realize they cannot be all things to all people. Results don’t come from micro-managing or doing everything themselves. Instead they inspire those around them to maximize their own strengths and work effectively as a team.
  • To manage pessimism. Notice I didn’t say eliminate. Some pessimistic thinking can be healthy if leveraged correctly. Leaders can learn to focus their time and energy on those things they can control and when to change lanes when certain strategies aren’t working. They recognize that sometimes things just suck, so they embrace it and ride it out. And finally, they are good at compartmentalizing so the bad things in their lives don’t slop over into the good things.
  • To snicker at the concept of luck. Effective leaders pursue goals with passion and a dogged persistence. They don’t back down from challenges and define themselves by how they react to failure, not by the failure itself.
  • To understand the value of energy. Every employee should learn how to move efficiently from energy expenditure (those stressful times) and energy renewal. However, refilling their emotional tank is key for leaders and managers and they identify when their employees need it as well.

Remarkably, this actually comes naturally for most of the leaders we train. Certainly, habits can be deeply embedded and hard to change, but these habits are based on decades old perceptions of how a leader is supposed to act. Caring for their employees is far more natural. And far more effective for highly effective companies.

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