Don’t Smooth Things Over

Courageous leaders don’t smooth things over. They don’t put band-aids on the symptoms of a problem. They don’t pretend “things” are okay when they know darn well they are not and they never ever expect that a problem will just fix itself. 

 

What courageous leaders do is make things right, even if sometimes that means plunging headfirst into conflict. 

 

There are and have been many a great leader who preferred to avoid conflict when possible but I can’t think of a single truly great leader from the past or present who avoids conflict at all costs. 

 

The most effective leaders know that “smoothing over” a problem isn’t much different than burying it under a rock. Sooner or later someone comes along and turns the rock over exposing the problem with all it’s rough edges on display once again. 

 

Weaker leaders avoid conflicts because to them conflict means emotionally charged turmoil and fights and disruption and drama. In the hands of a weak leader that’s probably true.

 

Under the guidance of an Authentic Leader, especially an Authentic Servant Leader, a conflict represents the opportunity for genuine learning and long-term growth. 

 

Authentic Servant Leaders meet conflict head-on with the compassion, integrity, and understanding that you would expect from such a leader. They know that the only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it so they work diligently to lower relationship tension and the emotions that go with it. 

 

They lead the discussion with whatever facts are irrefutable to build common ground. They show empathy for every side of a conflict without minimizing the importance of anyone’s feelings. 

 

They want everyone involved in the situation to come out of it with their self-esteem and the conflict gone. 

 

When that works it’s a great accomplishment. But the truth is it doesn’t always work. 

 

When it doesn’t work the Authentic Servant Leader sets aside the Authentic Servant part and simply leads. If forced, they impose a solution that ends the conflict. They decide! They take action! That may mean some really bad stuff happens to someone involved in the conflict but the conflict is resolved and it’s resolved for good. 

 

Authentic Servant Leaders do not allow conflict to linger. Conflicts are like an organizational cancer. Leaders should help diagnose and treat the conflict but if it can’t be treated it must be removed. That will likely result in some injured feelings. Authentic Servant Leaders understand that at least a part of their organization may require some time to heal from an imposed solution. They also know that needing a little time to heal is far better than dealing with a slow burning conflict that never ends.

 

I firmly believe in helping everyone in an organization feel valuable and in continually building their self-esteem. But in every case, in every single case, the good of the many must outweigh the good of the one. 


Dealing with conflict is one of the biggest challenges for a true leader but it’s one they don’t run from, in fact, the very best leaders run to it. 

What Makes a Leader

Calling yourself a leader does not make you a leader. Holding a position of leadership in your organization does not make you a leader. Having an important sounding title does not make you a leader. Having someone else describe you as a leader does not make you a leader.

Your promotion to a leadership position does not make you a leader, in fact the managerial skills that likely earned you the promotion are very likely holding you back as a leader.

If you’re trying to manage your people then you will always have people problems. Human beings do not respond to being managed. Actually leading your people will permanently eliminate most of the “people problems” managers face everyday. 

So, here are a handful of traits that contribute to being a leader:

Risking your success being hidden inside the success of someone else makes you a leader. 

Caring as much about the advancement of those around you as you care about your own advancement makes you a leader.

Tackling the assignments no one else will tackle makes you a leader. 

Investing your time where it’s needed rather than where you want to makes you a leader. 

Making right decisions that most people simply won’t makes you a leader.

Finding common ground where only mud previously existed makes you a leader.

Seeing the potential within every person you meet makes you a leader. 

Doing what’s right when everyone around you believes it’s wrong makes you a leader.

Working to build more leaders rather than more followers makes you a leader.

Understanding that your own success is dependent upon the success of your people makes you a leader.

Having the courage to let the best idea win, whether it’s yours or someone else’s makes you a leader.

Understanding that constant collaborative communication with your people will help them succeed makes you a leader.

A willingness to be held accountable, by anyone and everyone makes you a leader.

Being completely honest with yourself makes you a leader.

These are some of the traits that make a leader. To be sure there are more. Few leaders possess every recognized leadership characteristic but they possess more than people who do not lead.

The right to truly lead must be earned. It can’t be earned through what you say, it is earned through what you do. Leader “wannabes” tend to talk leadership, Authentic Leaders tend to do leadership. 

Are you just talking or are you doing? 

Are You Really Leading?

I’m kind of afraid that “leadership” has become something of a buzzword. The actual definition of buzzword is “a word or phrase, often an item of jargon, that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context.” 

If we buy that definition then “leadership” has actually been a buzzword for quite some time. I’m not sure when it changed from a meaningful word to a buzzword but my guess would be that it happened slowly over time, so slowly that many of us were slow to realize it happened. 

People, including me, have written exhaustively about the difference between managing and leading and yet most people who use the word “leader” when describing themselves still operate more as a manager than a leader. They know enough about leadership to use the buzzwords but when you watch them in action the buzz soon disappears and all your left with is words. 

One area, one critical area, where many of these would be leaders fall short is in developing and sharing their vision.

They effectively develop good strategies and operational plans (management activities) while glossing over or completely ignoring the vision. (Vision-casting is a key component of effective leadership) 

Authentic leaders understand the importance of goals and having everyone in their organization working towards those goals. A vision describes those goals in some detail and also explains how the strategies, tactics and operational plans of the organization ensure those goals are achieved. 

The best leaders endlessly clarify the vision and goals of their organization and explain how even small goals can serve to help ensure the larger goals are achieved. That process helps everyone within the organization understand their own role in helping the vision become reality. 

Here’s the thing; if you’re in a leadership role and you have no vision for the organization then where exactly are you leading your people? If you have a vision and you have not effectively shared it with the people you lead then why would they follow you? People have a need to know where they are going and what will be waiting for them when they arrive. Without that very basic information they are unlikely to actually follow.

Leadership is not just a word, it is an action, more precisely a set of actions. One of the actions is developing and sharing a common vision that comes from common goals. 

If you want to actually practice leadership rather than just talk leadership then share your goals and vision early and often. Repeat it again and again, make it a part of everyday life in your organization. 

People react to management but they respond to leadership, when it’s truly leadership. Reactive people will seldom help a manager achieve organizational goals but responsive people very often engage with their leader to accomplish great things. 

Share your vision and your people will respond. Once that happens anything and everything is possible.

The Reality Gap

The higher you go in your organization the greater the risk that you will lose touch with your people. That risk has less to do with you as a leader than it has to do with with your followers. 

Positions at or near the top of an organization come with power or at least the perception of power. The people at lower levels of an organization believe that the people “at the top” have substantial control over their jobs and livelihoods. That belief drives a respect for those people at the top. I say respect but the truth is that far too often it’s not really respect, it’s fear and intimidation. 

To be clear, that fear is not necessarily driven by anything the leader says or does, it is driven by the insecurities of the people they lead. 

The best leaders are aware of those common insecurities and the behaviors they drive. One of the most common behaviors is a lack of candor. Most people are careful with the information they share with leaders at high levels of an organization. They have no interest in even appearing to “rock the boat.” 

So they withhold information that their leaders need to lead effectively. That can easily create a reality gap for the leader.

You may think you’ve done nothing to cause your people to shield you from the truth and you may be correct. But it’s not just you they shield from the truth, it’s your position. It’s kinda like having a meeting and telling people to forget you’re the boss…they can’t and won’t forget, they will always be leery about sharing real world information. 

In the worst cases they will either tell you only what they think you want to hear or they will outright lie. 

Here’s what makes this challenge so difficult to overcome: most leaders do not believe that a reality gap exists. They think they are “plugged in” to the pulse of their organization and certainly to some extent they are. The question is to what extent. A very large percentage of leaders are far less connected than they think. 

That’s why every leader, let me repeat, every leader needs at least one truth teller. Their truth teller is part coach, part confidant, and secure enough to risk the consequences of not withholding the information their leader needs. 

If you’re at or near the top of your organization then you need access to accurate, timely information. To ensure you have it you must find the people within your organization who have the confidence to tell you what’s what. 

Search out those people or that person and stay connected to them; let them be a second set of eyes and ears for you. Use them to verify the reality that you think you know. As a leader you can never have too much information. More and better information means a smaller reality gap and when it comes to gaps small is definitely big!

 

Uncommon Leadership

I’ve had the opportunity to spend several days recently with a person recently promoted to a leadership position. He was very good at what he did and earned his promotion. His promotion came with a new title and higher income, unfortunately what it didn’t come with was any hint of how to actually lead. So he doesn’t lead, he just tries to get by managing his new team.

I’ve seen the same scenario play out literally hundreds of times through the years. A person is good at what they do so they are promoted into a leadership role even through they have little, or more commonly, no leadership experience or skills at all.

I call them common leaders. I don’t mean to be disparaging here but it is what it is… common leadership really isn’t leadership at all. At its best it’s just managing and and at it’s worst it’s something much worse. That something involves fear, coercion and sometimes even outright abuse. 

Absent any real leadership skills people in leadership positions too often tend to use intimidation, coercion, threats and punishment to force the compliance of their people. 99.9% of the people in leadership positions who use those tactics are not bad people, it’s just that in many cases that’s how they were taught to “lead.” Sadly, they were likely taught to lead by people who themselves had few if any leadership skills. So the cycle of common leadership simply repeats itself. 

Individuals who do manage to break the cycle of common leadership and become uncommon leaders don’t do so on their own. They most often have a mentor or are led by someone who has broken through the common cycle themselves. 

Here’s one of the most interesting aspects of leadership: it can’t actually be taught but it can be learned. It is learned not so much by listening to a true leader but by watching them. 

Authentic leaders lead by example. They show the way to true uncommon leadership. I can tell people what to look for in a leader, I can share with them the characteristics that make a good leader, and I can even help them judge whether or not someone in a leadership position truly processes those characteristics but a person must teach themselves to lead. 

Let me give you one example. 

Caring for people, truly caring and investing yourself in another person’s success and well-being is an absolute characteristic of an uncommon, authentic leader. I can tell someone that, I can point out a person who has that characteristic but I know of no way to teach someone how to care. They must develop that caring nature on their own. The quickest way to do that is to see someone else display their own caring nature and decide if the results they see are something they want in their own life.

If you were taught to lead by someone who did not develop those uncommon leadership skills then my very best advice to you would be to find a mentor who has. Find a coach or hire a coach who will help you break that cycle of common leadership and become a leader who can actually make a positive difference in the lives of those they would lead. 

Never assume that a leadership position makes you a leader. A leadership position doesn’t come with the right to lead, that must be earned by demonstrating consistent leadership skills. 

Develop those skills and people will naturally follow you. 

Leaders Listen

Most of us, myself included, tend to take the ability to hear for granted. We also too often confuse the ability to hear with the ability to listen.

Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound by the ear. If you are not hearing-impaired, hearing simply happens. Listening, however, is something you consciously choose to do. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning from words and sentences.

The best leaders listen. They are always listening. They even listen to things that they would just as soon not hear. 

Leaders make themselves available to hear the “noise” in their organizations because that’s like inside information.

Weak leaders try to silence the noise, better leaders encourage it and find a way to turn even negative noise into useful information. Think about it, would you as a leader rather pretend all is well or would you rather know where your opportunities for improvement might be?

When you listen, really really listen, you will likely hear some things you wish you hadn’t. You may even hear some stuff that isn’t true. You must also realize that part of your role as a leader requires that you have the ability to sort the good information from the not so good. (A bit of an aside here but as a leader you also do have a responsibility to stop untruths from being spread)

Authentic Servant Leaders know that good listening is the beginning of great ideas so they listen at every level of their organization. 

They also listen with more than their ears. They “listen” with their eyes to determine if what they are hearing matches with what they are seeing. They “listen” with their heart as well to determine the level of emotion attached to what was said. 

Authentic Servant Leaders understand that communication is a participative endeavor and that actually communicating requires them to listen more than they talk. 

If you’re a true leader then you certainly know that you still have much to learn. Hopefully then you also know that you’ll learn more in a few minutes of listening then you’ll learn in hours of talking. 

So listen up. Listen to what was said, listen to how it was said, listen to when it was said, and listen to whoever said it. 

You’ll never know where your next learning opportunity will come from unless you’re always listening. Anyone can teach everyone something and that means as a leader you should invest the time to hear from all of your people. 

Did you hear that?

Leadership Integrity

Authentic Servant Leaders know that if they don’t have integrity all the time then they don’t have integrity at all. 

Without integrity you will find it very difficult, I would say virtually impossible, to truly lead. You may be able to manipulate, you may be able to coerce, and you may be able to force compliance but none of that has much to do with true leadership. 

Leadership posers, people who occupy positions of leadership without really leading can at best get the compliance of their people. True leaders, especially Authentic Servant Leaders, earn the commitment of their people.

Untrusted leaders are unfollowed leaders and if no one is following… well then they’re really not leaders at all.

Integrity is the foundation on which all other leadership characteristics are built. There are many leadership qualities and characteristics that matter it’s just that they all matter less, much less, if integrity is lacking.

You can have great judgment, you can care for your people, you can have tremendous vision, but if your people can’t trust you then they can’t follow you. Notice I didn’t say “won’t” follow you, I said “can’t.”

Follower-ship requires the follower to have some level of commitment to the leader. It is almost humanly impossible to commit to a person we don’t trust. Trust comes straight from the integrity tree. 

No integrity means no trust, no trust means no commitment, no commitment means no follower-ship. 

Authentic Servant Leaders know that it’s a waste of time to talk about their integrity. They also know that people of high integrity don’t need to talk about it because they are showing it all the time. 

Demonstrating integrity means making certain that your thoughts, word, and actions are all in alignment. Demonstrating integrity means showing that you do what’s good for all, not for one. 

We’ve all seen too many people who have sacrificed their integrity for a shot at the top spot of an organization (or a country) and in doing so also gave up their opportunity to truly lead. If you’ve seen it happen to other people then you know it happens.

Only you can make certain that it doesn’t happen to you!