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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!

 
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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. 

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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?

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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! 

 
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A Position of Leadership

You can be promoted to a management position and that makes you a manager. It doesn’t necessarily make you a good manager but it does make you a manager. It does not, it absolutely does not, make you a leader.

You can be promoted to a leadership position as well but that absolutely DOES NOT make you a leader. Not even a bad leader, no promotion, no matter how high up in an organization, makes you a leader.

Followers make you a leader. Turn around sometimes and see if anyone is following you. If they are not then you might be going somewhere but you’re not leading.

Two of the biggest leadership mistakes that an organization or person can make is believing that management and leadership positions are automatically one and the same and thinking that having a leadership position makes you a leader.

As I’ve written a thousand times, you manage stuff and you lead people. The skill sets and more importantly, the mindsets, are very different. Yes, one person can possess both but that is far rarer than many people think. 

You do not need a title or position to lead. Leadership is far more about disposition than it is position. 

Leading requires that you make a decision to influence others to your way of thinking and doing. 

Authentic Leadership requires that you make a decision to influence others to your way of thinking and doing and to do so in as a transparent and consistent method as possible. 

Authentic Servant Leadership requires that you make a decision to influence others to the best way of thinking and doing and to do so in as a transparent and consistent method as possible. It also requires that you truly care about the people you lead and that your actions frequently put your people ahead of yourself. 

You might not be sure if you’re talking to a leader or if the leader you’re talking to is an Authentic Leader but you will most certainly know when your interacting with an Authentic Servant Leader, their caring nature and concern for your well-being is almost constantly on display. 

If you’ve earned a leadership position then congratulations. Your first task should be to also earn the right to truly lead. The next handful of posts will discuss what skills and characteristics you’ll need to earn that right. 

Step one to earning the right to lead is realizing that your position or title merely gives you a head start. It’s your actions and how people respond to them that will determine if you’re actually a leader. 

 
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Results Aren’t all That Matters

If you’re a leader then you surely know that results matter. You’re in your position to get things done and as a leader you coach, motivate, and teach other people to help you get them done.

As a leader you must also know that results aren’t all that matters. Success is important but how you succeed is vital. Leaders who are willing to succeed “at all costs” almost always eventually learn that some costs are just too high, regardless of the level of success. (For the purpose of discussion here I should point out that the particular results I’m writing about are the “bottom line, profit driven” type of results)

If you’re a sales leader you must produce the numbers. If you’re a leader in finance you must make certain the numbers are accurate. If you’re an IT leader you must keep your network secure. Wherever you lead there is a desired result to be achieved. 

Authentic Servant Leaders are results driven, there should be no question about that. But they balance that drive with additional, equally important drives. It’s these additional “drivers” that help ensure their success as leaders goes beyond mere bottom line results.

First and foremost Authentic Servant leaders work to build trust in everything they do. 

They create a transparent organization where secrets are kept to an absolute minimum. They know that information isn’t powerful when it’s locked away in a safe. Information only becomes useful when it is shared with the people who can use it to accomplish something. 

Authentic Servant Leaders confront reality, always, and that helps them right the wrongs they comes across almost as fast as they come across them. It should be noted here that this is one of the biggest failings of leaders who are solely results driven. They allow “wrongs” to live and grow in the name of results. To them the ends absolutely justify the means. They don’t just bend the rules, they obliterate them. It’s that attitude that destroys trust and without trust they cannot truly lead.

Authentic Servant Leaders build trust through accountability and they know that accountability begins with them. They do not expect more of their people then they expect of themselves and those expectations are laid out for everyone in a clear and concise manner. They are measurable and durable, the expectations and how they are measured do not change for the sole purpose of achieving the desired bottom line result.

Authentic Servant Leaders never forget that ethics and morales must always outweigh the drive for results. They are more than willing to suffer a short-term setback for long-term success achieved with honor. They know that it’s not just what they achieve that matters, they know that how they achieved it matters even more.

If that all seems too pollyanna to you then perhaps you’re a bit too bottom line results driven to be a truly Authentic Servant Leader. You may want to consider balancing your need for results with the need to actually lead as well.

 
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Transactional Leadership

Transactional leadership is one of the eight main “theories” of leadership. This type of leadership focuses on the role of supervision, organization and group performance. This theory bases leadership on a series of rewards and punishments. 

You may not have known what this practice was called but I’ll bet you have often seen it used in business. When employees are successful, they are rewarded; when they fail, they are reprimanded or punished. Every interaction between the “leader” (I use that word very loosely here) and their people is a separate transaction. Think “what have you done for me lately” and you’ll get the idea behind transactional leadership.

Transactional leadership is an incredibly lazy way to lead. It requires very little on the part of the leader. They have no need to really know their people and they don’t have to care about them one bit. They are not responsible in the least for the success or well-being of their people. All they really need is the whip of intimidation and maybe a strong voice.

Oh, and they will need a constant supply of people to replace the never ending exodus of people who may have had the potential to be great successes but were never in an environment where they could actually succeed. They should also keep their own resumes up to date because sooner or later transactional leaders always follow their people out the door. 

Transactional leaders never seem to understand that their own success is dependent upon the success of their people. They can’t comprehend that most all of their “people problems” are the result of their own failed leadership. 

I feel for you if you’re working for a transactional leader. It will be virtually impossible to reach your full potential or to do work that really makes a difference if you find yourself stuck under these lazy leaders. 

The good news is you are not really stuck. If you don’t belong under a transactional leader then you will find or create a way out. If you’re not willing to work your way out from under this leader in name only then don’t complain about it either. 

Successful people don’t complain about the circumstances they allow to be part of their lives. If those circumstances are not conducive to their success they change them, not complain about them.

If you have nothing but problems with the people you lead then it’s entirely possible that you are a transactional leader. Now that you are aware of that possibility you can decide if you want to invest the time to become a more relational leader.

You will need to be willing to invest time and a bit of own emotions to help the people you lead succeed. You’ll also need to learn the real value of those people, you’ll need to see them not as mere resources but as human beings. Real people with goals and wants, problems and concerns very likely much like your own. 

You will need to understand that until you actually care about your people, really genuinely care, that your people won’t truly care about following you. 

Transactional leadership is a terrible way to lead. It’s really barely leadership at all. If you struggle with “people problems” then stop conducting transactions with them and start building actual relationships. I can promise you that your rewards will be well worth the effort.