So…You Say You Want to be a Leader

Odds are there are a significant number of people reading this who want to be a leader one day. They are waiting for a promotion to “leader” in their organization. Perhaps they are searching for a role with another organization that will “make” them a leader.

I’ve got some disappointing news for anyone who falls into those categories. No one can promote you to “leader.” No position or title in the world can make you a leader. Technically speaking, even you can’t make you a leader.

Only the people who follow you can make you a leader. You can call yourself a leader all day long but if no one is following you then you might be leading yourself (which is good) but you are not leading anyone else.

I don’t know any other way to say this except to say that waiting for a position or title to make you is leader is a mistake. It is a very common mistake so don’t beat yourself up over it too much.

People don’t follow positions or titles, they only follow other people. So instead of working for a position of leadership work to become the type of person other people will want to follow.

That type of person has a clear, realistic vision of their future. They can communicate that vision in a way that excites and inspires other people. They celebrate the success of other people as much as they celebrate their own success. They are outstanding listeners and they listen with the intent to understand rather than merely respond.

But more than anything else they genuinely care about people.

People follow people who care about them. One of the truest things I know about leadership is that you can care for people without leading them but you cannot lead someone without caring for them. Truly caring.

Caring about the person. Caring about their lives and caring about what’s important to them.

If you’re only caring about what they can do for you or your organization then you may be a boss but it’s unlikely that you’re seen as a leader.

If your goal is to be an Authentic Leader then you must put people first. If you want to grow your company then first you must grow your people. If you want your people to take care of your customers then you must first take care of your people.

If you’re in a leadership position and you think your people are nothing more than disposable assets then whatever success you may be experiencing today will not be sustainable.

Leadership is people centric. When you occupy a leadership position and you put “stuff” before your people then you forfeit the right to lead.

When you’re people believe you don’t care about them they won’t care much about actually following you. That is a mistake no organization can survive.

What History Teaches

Whenever I hear of someone heading off to college who is planning to major in History my thoughts always go to “oh boy, taking on a ton of student loan debt for a low paying teaching job.”

I mean, what else do you do with a History Degree.

But then I start to think more and I am so grateful for anyone willing to teach History. It is history that teaches us everything we need to know to be successful.

In High School my least favorite class was Military History. (I attended a Military High School) I had a hard time figuring out why we were studying old battle plans and tactics from lost battles. I eventually came to understand that if we were ever required to lead a group of brave service members into battle the job wasn’t just to win the war. It was to bring the people we were charged with leading home alive.

As General George Patton frequently said, “it’s not the job of the American Solider to die for their country; the job of the American Solider is to make the other SOB die for theirs.”

Small pieces of historical knowledge can make a huge difference. It can prevent history from repeating itself. If Adolf Hitler had studied Napoleon’s battle plans from years earlier he likely would have not opened up a second front in Russia. If he had waited only a handful of months to attack it is very possible the outcome of World War 2 could have been different.

Companies are like countries when it comes to history. Those that are unwilling to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Emphasis on the doomed.

History can teach us what to do as well as what not to do. The problem is, if we don’t learn from history we tend to take the same shortcuts. Use the same level of thinking, say the same things, and do the identical stuff as the people who failed before us.

It’s fine to study successful companies. Following the practices of those who have succeeded before you makes perfect sense. But I also like to learn from companies that were highly successful right up until the time they weren’t.

I want to know what changed. I want to know what it was that caused them to go from great to good to downright bad.

It most often has to do with people. Mostly the people who run the company. History teaches us that the most common mistake they make is assuming that their future is an automatic extension of their past. Those organizations believe that because they are currently successful they will always be successful. They begin to take their success for granted. They begin to believe that their success is solely due to their efforts. They forget about all the people who have helped them along the way.

Successful companies and organizations do not fail the people leading them. The people leading them fail their companies and organizations.

History is full of examples of how organizations create sustainable success. It is also full of examples of what organizations did to kill their success.

Successful people learn from their mistakes, the most successful people, and organizations, learn from the mistakes of others. Those “lessons” are found in history. Are you willing to learn?

How Important is Control to a Leader?

Many people in Leadership positions believe leading is about control. Especially controlling the people they are supposed to be leading. People in leadership positions who don’t actually lead are really struggling with this great corporate experiment happening around the world that is called “Working from Home.”

Because they don’t actually lead they have little influence over the actions and attitudes of the people they are supposed to be leading. They have so few leadership skills that rather than attempt to earn the commitment of their people they seek to force their compliance.

But compliance requires control and that’s much harder to come by in a work from home environment. That’s why “leaders in title” only have so many issues with their people not being in the office and directly under their thumb. They can’t wait for a return to “normal.”

But they will have to wait because working from home is the new normal. The pretend leaders who hope to order their people back into the office have one of two choices. The first is to grow into an Authentic Leader and actually lead. The second is to join the growing heap of failed “leaders in title” only who couldn’t let go of the need to control every aspect of their employees workday.

People will eventually return to the office, in some form. Likely they will spend at least as much time working from home as working in an office environment. There will never be a time when rush hours look like the rush hours of “the before times.” There will never again be a time when large companies pile a few hundred employees into a large conference room simply because they can. Things will never again be exactly as they were.

This work from home experiment has been going on long enough that real data exists regarding productivity concerns. Most people are either as productive or more productive than when working in the office. In many cases where productivity has suffered it has suffered due to the “leader in title.” They attempt to reach through the phone or computer to control their people as if they were still in the office.

The people who are actually led while working from home seem to do just fine.

There was a time when “work-life balance” was the goal. That goal is gone. The new goal is “work-life integration” where employees have choices about when they get their work done. “Work-life integration” means the employees can run an errand in the middle of the day. It means they don’t have to make up some cockamamie excuse about why they didn’t immediately answer the phone.

“Work-life balance” is full of controls. “Work-life integration” focuses on positive outcomes. It eliminates the need for many of the tradition controls.

Here’s the deal…Authentic Leaders already know they control far fewer things than they thought they would before they became leaders. They have also learned they don’t have to control anyone to earn their commitment.

Control is unnecessary for an Authentic Leader. They have influence into the attitude, activities, and outcomes of each member of their organization. If you’re in a leadership position and your struggling with the “work from home” thing then it’s very possible that you’re trying to control things…and people beyond your control.

Stop trying to control people and start building relationships with them. It’s those relationships, built on trust, that will allow you to influence your people to productivity heights that control freaks can only dream of.

Leading With Integrity

So let’s get this out of the way right up front. If you’re not leading with integrity then you’re simply not leading.

You’re not leading because leading requires that someone is following you. A true follower will have some level of commitment to their leader. People can be forced to comply with someone in a leadership position but they cannot be forced to commit.

In fact, they cannot commit. It is not possible for one human being to truly commit to another human being that they do not trust. Integrity is the foundation upon which trust is built. Where there is no integrity there can be no trust.

Having integrity is a choice. It’s a choice to do what you said you would do, even if you no longer feel like doing it. You may have never thought of it like this but you have an “Integrity Bank.” Every time you do exactly what you committed to do you’ll receive a small deposit into that Credibility Bank. When you fail to honor a commitment, any commitment, you suffer a substantial withdrawal from your Credibility Bank.

That may not seem fair but that’s the way it works. You don’t need to have too many withdrawals to reach a zero balance in your bank. That means zero credibility and that means zero committed followers.

Authentic Leaders know that their most valuable “currency” is their credibility. They know that without it that can not have a positive influence on those they hope to lead. So they honor their commitments. They follow through. They keep their word. They don’t say yes when they need to say no.

Their people know that they can trust their leader. Their people know that their leader is committed to them so they can commit to their leader.

Every committed relationship is built on a foundation of integrity. It’s the single most important foundation in any relationship. What Authentic Leaders understand that many lesser leaders don’t is this one irrefutable fact….you either have integrity 100% of the time or you do not have integrity.

Integrity is a full-time gig. It’s not something you do at work. It’s not something you do at home. It’s not something you do with people who matter to you. It’s just something you do because it’s who you are. It’s part of your DNA.

Or it’s not. The great thing is that it’s a part of your DNA that you get to control. The only question is, will you choose to control it.

The Power of Questions

Many people have the belief that leaders give orders. They think leaders tell people what to do and how to do it. Sadly, that is true for far too many people in leadership positions.

Authentic Leaders however give few orders. They don’t bark out directions at people telling them exactly what to do. What Authentic Leaders actually do is ask questions. They ask questions to help their people grow. They ask questions to help their people learn. They ask questions to challenge their people’s thinking. More importantly, they ask questions to teach their people to challenge their own thinking.

They ask questions to help their people become and stay engaged. They ask questions to help their people feel like they are part of the team. And they ask questions to learn from their people.

Asking questions to help someone see how their thinking might be flawed is far more effective than telling someone they are wrong. Asking someone how they came to a particular conclusion is far more people valuing then telling them they don’t know what they are talking about.

Asking for input before making a big decision helps people be more supportive of the decision even if it wasn’t the decision they would have made.

Asking people for their ideas before dumping a change on them helps them feel as if they matter. It frequently makes the change more beneficial for everyone.

Authentic Leaders ask questions and they know the better the question the better the answer. The more questions they ask the more engaged their people become. Authentic Leaders know they can never stop learning. They also know they can’t learn anything by telling, they can only learn when asking.

Asking questions is a far more powerful way to lead then telling. But to real key to asking effective questions is listening well.

Authentic Leaders listen. They linger on the words of the person speaking until they are certain of what was said AND what was meant. They listen with the intent to understand instead of listening only to respond. They listen with focus and without distractions.

Glancing at your cell phone to make certain you’re not missing anything important guarantees you’ll miss something important from the person you’re speaking with. And you’ll make them feel anything but important. Your cell phone doesn’t help you listen more effectively and you’re only fooling yourself if you think it does.

Ask questions and listen. Listen to the exclusion of any other noise. You will learn far more than you think you will. You might even learn that your team is far more effective than you thought they were.

No One “Needs” to be Micromanaged

I put a tweet out a couple of weeks ago that said something about the dangers of micromanaging. Almost immediately I received a response that said some people “needed” to be micromanaged. They were incapable of thinking or doing anything on their own. Some people they said wanted to be micromanaged so they didn’t have to think for themselves. They said thinking was too tiring for some people.

No. No. No. That’s wrong on every count.

There are 2 reasons why someone micromanages their people.

Sometimes they have so much passion for their business or organization that they want to be involved in everything. It’s still not good but I can cut those micromanagers a little slack because at least their intentions are good if not their methods.

The second reason is really multiple reasons in one. They don’t trust their people. They have knowingly or unknowingly put people into positions where they can’t succeed. They have convinced themselves that their people can’t think for themselves. They are know-it-alls. They think their people are lazy. They don’t like their people, or perhaps they don’t like people in general.

To sum all that up…they are exceptionally poor leaders.

You do not grow people by micromanaging them. If you are not growing your people you’ll find it very difficult to grow your business.

As someone in a leadership position your number one responsibility is growing and developing your people. You don’t do that by micromanaging them. You can’t even do it by managing them. If fact, most every “people problem” you think you have is likely a direct result of trying to manage them rather than lead them.

Micromanaging someone is like managing them on steroids. You hurt them, you hurt yourself and you hurt your organization.

No one needs to be micromanaged. No one wants to be micromanaged. No one benefits from being micromanaged.

Those are the facts. If you choose to dispute them you may hold a leadership position but I’m sorry to say that it’s almost certain that you are not a leader.

Are You Asking the Right Questions?

When you ask the right questions you receive much better answers in return. I mention that because it’s very challenging to lead people that you do not know. Knowing them requires consistent communication with them and questions are one of the most effective communication tools a leader has.

If.

If they are asking the right questions. As a leader one of your primary responsibilities is to help your people grow. To grow into their potential, to grow into their goals, and to grow into a leader, if that is one of their goals.

Most leaders would agree with all that but here’s the problem. Too few leaders have asked the people they lead any of the questions that would help them understand the goals of their people. Too few leaders ask their people how they can help them stay motivated long enough to reach their potential.

As Clarence the Angel learned in “It’s a Wonderful Life” you have to know something about someone if you’re going to help them. That “something” goes way beyond their hire date, their employee number and their job description.

Leadership is about people. Failing to know your people can cause you to treat them as if they were just another thing in your organization, like a computer or lift truck. They are not things! They are PEOPLE, with wants, needs, issues, hopes and dreams…just like you.

As a leader you must make judgments about your people. As as leader you cannot be judgmental about your people. (If you’re an Authentic Leader you understand the difference) You cannot exercise good judgment about your people without information about them. The best way to get that information is to ask them directly.

That is why I recommend you conduct a periodic innerview with as many of your people as possible. No, I didn’t misspell that. I don’t mean interview. An interview is what you do when you’re trying to hire someone. An innerview is what you do when you’re trying to help someone grow.

Innerviews are quick. 5 minutes or so to ask how someone is doing. Ask about their goals, both personal and professional. Ask about how you can help them. Ask how the organization is doing for them. Ask what you could do to make their job more efficient. Ask about their family and life outside of the workplace. Ask any or all of those questions as time permits. The purpose of those questions is to get an inner view of your people so you’ll know how to help them.

Ask those questions even if your people are a little confused or surprised by them. Once they realize that you are sincerely interested in them as people their answers will improve. So will your ability to help them grow.

Now, here’s why most “leaders” tell me they can’t ask these questions….they say they don’t have time. They often say that immediately after telling me that their people are their greatest asset.

All I can conclude from that is that they intentionally invest their time in less important things than their “greatest asset.”

That does not sound like an effective leadership strategy.

Can you slow down enough to invest critically important time with your people to ask the right questions? If you’re in a leadership position and you truly want to lead then your answer to that question must be a resounding YES!