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.

Enduring Leadership

Enduring leadership is a characteristic of a great leader. Truly great leaders, what leadership gurus would call a Pinnacle Level or Level Five leader leave behind their leadership when they are done leading.

They leave it behind in the form of leaders they have helped build. That’s why you can’t truly declare someone a Pinnacle Level leader until they are at or near the end of their leadership career. 

You see, good leaders are judged by what they do; great leaders are judged by what gets done when they are not leading anymore. A truly great leader’s leadership outlasts them.

If you lead any kind of organization and nothing of you or your leadership remains when you leave the building for the last time then your leadership was of the common variety. Pinnacle or Level Five leaders are not at all common, in fact they are the most uncommon leaders of all.

They have not only built a solid follower-ship, they have built outstanding leaders who will carry forth their legacy and very likely build more leaders of their own. It is not a coincidence that Pinnacle Level leaders have almost all been led at some point in their career by another Pinnacle Level leader. 

If your ultimate leadership goal is to become a Pinnacle Level leader then you’re likely to fall short of your goal. Achieving recognition as a top level leader is seldom the goal of a Pinnacle Level leader, their goal is to make a difference in the life of their organization and the lives of the people they lead within it. 

Achieving Pinnacle or Level Five Leadership Status is merely a byproduct of their commitment to their people. 

Motives matter when it comes to leadership. You don’t build more leaders to reach the Pinnacle Level of leadership, you reach the Pinnacle Level of leadership by building more leaders.

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?

Middle Leadership

Everyone is familiar with the term “middle management” but the term “middle leadership” is rarely heard. 

But the vast majority of leadership actions come not from the top but from the middle of an organization. That a person needs a high position or important sounding title in order to lead is perhaps the single greatest leadership myth of all. 

The top leaders in an organization may indeed make the biggest decisions but it’s all the daily decisions made by people in the middle leadership roles that make those big decisions possible. 

Top leaders who forget that do so at their own peril. 

Many people in the middle of an organization believe that they can’t lead because they don’t have a position or title of leadership. That’s just not so! 

Not only can you lead, you can lead in all directions. You can of course lead down the organizational chart, you can lead across and you can even lead up. You don’t need anything other than influence and a desire to make a difference from wherever you are in your organization. 

The key to leading from the middle, well really leading from anywhere, is to first lead yourself exceptionally well. To lead yourself you must be able to make your own decisions. You also must be able to complete your work without requiring a ton of help and input from those around you. 

You must be able to manage your emotions and attitude in such a way that your presence adds value to those around you. I understand that no one can do that 100% of the time but putting a  little focus in that attitude control area will make a big difference in creating a positive influence with those individuals you would hope to lead. 

Never never forget, your attitude is your choice and it is one of the most important choices you’ll ever make. 

Integrity is an absolute must for Authentic Servant Leadership and the ability to control your emotions and maintain a positive attitude are not far behind.

So…who controls your attitude?

Mind Your Gaps

I had the opportunity several years ago to sit in on a presentation to a group of senior leaders. The presentation was from a speaker who uses Civil War history to teach leadership lessons. 

As someone who was required to take Military History as part of my high school curriculum I can tell you that military battles offer great insights into leadership successes and failures. I was excited to hear the presentation. 

The presentation focused on The Battle of Gettysburg which began on July 1st, 1863. During the first hours of battle, Union General John Reynolds was killed while leading his troops from the front. Outnumbered, the union forces were stymied for a time and it took awhile for them to regroup.

After sharing the story of the early hours of that famous battle the presenter asked the assembled group of senior leaders whether or not General Reynolds made the right decision in leading from the front. He had exposed himself to enemy fire and left his troops without his leadership as a result.

The leadership team in the room had differing opinions as to the wisdom of General Reynolds decision. Some thought it better if he had “lead from the rear” thus protecting himself from direct conflict. They felt that he jeopardized the mission by putting himself in harms way. You could see their point considering that his death did seem to slow down the union forces for a time. 

Others thought he showed true leadership by putting himself out front. Their point was that a leader shouldn’t ask their people to do something that they as a leader were unwilling to do. They also pointed out that since the Union forces eventually won his decision was proven correct. Also a good point. 

But here’s what I truly found fascinating; most had an opinion. They had this opinion in spite of having very little actual information about how the battle unfolded. There were a lot of “gaps” in the story of the battle as presented. (I’m sure the presenter did that mostly in the interest of time)

So how did this room full of top leaders come to an opinion with so little information? How did they know if General Reynolds had made the right decision despite the “gaps” in the story?

They did what all leaders, all people actually, do when they need to make a decision without all available information….they filled in the gaps with information from their own experiences. 

As I observed these key leaders offer their opinions I knew immediately which ones would accept risk in a decision and which ones would be more cautious…perhaps too cautious to lead in difficult circumstances. 

Those who believed that Reynolds had made the right call were willing to accept some level of risk and those who thought he had made the wrong call likely were not willing to accept that same level of risk. 

If time had permitted and the presenter had filled in the gaps himself then the audience wouldn’t have needed to supplant the story with their own experiences. In that case I really would not have been able to assess their appetite for risk. 

That same scenario plays out in business all the time. Leaders and their people make decisions even when they don’t have all the information that they wish they had. They simply use information from their own life history to fill in the gaps. 

That’s why two smart people, presented with identical, if incomplete information, can reach such differing conclusions. 

As a leader it is imperative that you know you’re people well. The better you know them and especially the better you understand them, the better you’ll understand the information they use to fill in their gaps. 

It’s also vital that you understand where your own “gap filling” information comes from. 

Understanding how both you and your people mind their gaps will help you see how two very different conclusions could both seem correct. 

Now, as to General Reynolds…the only mistake we can actually confirm he made was getting himself shot. As a good military leader he knew full well that his ultimate goal was not dying for the North, his ultimate goal was making as many Confederate troops as possibly die for the South. 

In that effort he failed completely.

The Evolution of Leadership

Geez, I’ve seen a bunch of posts and articles lately on the “evolution of leadership.” It seems a fair number of people are falling into the trap of believing that leadership needs to “adapt” to the “times.” 

Well, that just ain’t so!

Certainly some, just some, of the tactics of leadership change through the years. The well documented generational differences dictate that change. Generally speaking, very generally speaking, the motivational triggers of the different generations vary, but not as much as many  people think. 

Given those variances good leaders adjust. But they don’t adjust to trick or manipulate, they adjust to deliver motivation, discipline, and vision in the manor in which it is best received. 

While some leadership tactics change the core leadership principles and strategies do not. 

They don’t change because leadership is about people and people haven’t really changed….ever.

The basic human needs, as described by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have never really changed. Humans as it turns out are human. It doesn’t make a difference when they were born, where they where born, what sex they are, what color they are, or if they are rich or poor, humans are human. Every single one of them.

Leaders don’t lead businesses, (businesses are managed) leaders don’t lead countries, (countries are governed) leaders lead people, nothing more and nothing less. Those people also happen to be human.

Leaders get in trouble when they forget that very basic fact. 

One of the biggest reasons that people dislike change is because they see change as a threat to one or more of their basic human needs. A leader understands that just because it might not make sense to the leader doesn’t mean it isn’t very real to the person they are leading. 

Here’s another thing that can cause challenges for a leader. While human beings basic needs are much the same no two people are exactly identical. Even identical twins would be better described as “more similar” than most people. Understanding the differences of the people you lead is what makes leading so interesting and a constant learning experience.

Great leaders understand the sameness of their people’s basic needs to develop leadership strategies and learn the unique aspects of their people’s personalities to develop the tactics of successful leadership. In both cases they never forget that they are leading people not things.

That’s why the most important skills for a leader to have are people skills. They always have been most important and they will always be most important. Because leadership is about people! 

That’s never changed and it never will.

What Great Leaders Know

There are so many differences between a person who manages and a person who leads that I could write on that single topic almost exclusively. Great leaders know those differences well.

To be clear, the skill set of a manager is very different than the skill set of a leader. The mindset of a manager is vastly different than the mindset of a leader. To be clear as well, both managers and leaders are critically important for the success of any organization. It is hard to say one is more valuable than the other because without both an organizational will eventually fail. To be crystal clear, there are many people who possess both skill sets, there are far far fewer people who possess both mindsets. 

Managing is about “stuff” and leading is about people. Budgets are managed, inventories are managed, systems are managed, “things” are managed. Leading is solely about people and the singular focus of truly great leaders, at least during those times when they are actually leading, is their people. 

Managers can help people accomplish more for the good of the organization, managers can even motivate people. Many managers in fact look like decent leaders. The only thing missing is the motive of true leadership. The motive of true leadership is to do the right thing for the people simply because it’s the right thing to do. That’s where the mindset comes in.

Managers who look like leaders have the ability to get the compliance of their people. They set up a sort of transactional leadership model that says to their people “you’ll be fine here as long as you do what you’re asked.” Implied of course is the fact that when you stop doing what you’re asked then you won’t be fine anymore. That’s where compliance comes from.

Most people in an organization will in fact do what they are asked. The problem is that most “managed” people will do little more than what they are asked. They can appear to be engaged in the organization and engaged in their work when in fact they are more likely just putting in their hours.

True leaders, great leaders, have no need for the compliance of their people. They earn the commitment of their people and commitment far outweighs compliance. They earn it by putting a relational leadership model on full display. They build real relationships with the very real people they lead. They build them by showing that they care about people.

This doesn’t mean they have to become best buds and hang out together every weekend. A relational leadership model simply demands that the leader truly cares about the people they lead. They understand, they fully and completely understand that “stuff” is managed and people are led. 

The mindset of a manager is “we need to get this done,” the mindset of a leader is “we need to get this done in a people valuing way that builds people up and helps them reach their full potential while getting it done.” 

When we manage people every task is a “one off” exercise and managers find themselves telling their people the same things over and over. Every time a manager asks their people to do something it’s as if they never asked them before.

When we lead people every task is a learning exercise and because the people are committed to their leader they willingly repeat the task again and again without being asked over and over. 

Managing people helps them understand that the work is important. Leading people helps them understand that while the work is important they are more important. 

This sounds worse than I mean it to sound but managers use people to get the job done. Leaders develop people to get the job done. The different motives come directly from the different mindsets. One has immediate short-term impact and one has more patient potentially endless impact.

Make no mistake, people can build semi-successful careers by trying to manage people but people who lead people build more than careers, they build legacies. They build those legacies by building people who become great leaders in their own right. 

You can either be a manager or a leader, if you’re truly blessed you can even be both but your success and the success of your organization will ultimately depend on you understanding the vast difference between the two.