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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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Leading with Influence

If you had no title of consequence, if you had zero power to punish and reward people – would they still follow you? Would you still get positive results from them? 

The answer to that question is yes if, IF, you are actually a true leader. 

At it’s core leadership is about influence. If you have the ability to influence others then you have the ability to lead. It is not your title or lofty position within an organization that makes you a leader, it’s your level of influence. 

If you’re truly leading people they will commit to you. People don’t commit to companies, they don’t commit to positions and they certainly don’t commit to titles. People commit to other people, period.

If your people are not committed to you then they are not truly following you. They may comply with your requests because you have the power to punish and reward but that simply makes you a boss not a leader. (Just to be clear here I do not use “boss” in a negative sense, I use it just to distinguish the difference between leading and not leading. I have worked for bosses with no leadership ability at all and for bosses who were outstanding leaders.)

The foundations that support influence are perception and visibility. Influence doesn’t happen unless you have improved others’ perception of you and increased your visibility. Once you’ve established the appropriate level of perception, you will have gained a solid reputation and foundation of respect. After you’ve increased your visibility, you’ll become known and valued in your organization. Influence now becomes possible.

So, how do you improve other people’s perception of you while increasing your visibility? Here are four ideas…

Intentionally plan your day. Most people sadly just let their day happen to them. People of influence happen to their day. They focus on the outcome they need from their day and not all the small events that may happen to them during it. They leverage the events that get them closer to their desired outcome while minimizing the impact of the events that don’t. 

Choose to help. My better days are the days I help others be better. My best days are the days when almost no one knows I did it. If you have to tell people that you’re helping others you’re still missing the influence mark; help enough people and you won’t have to tell anyone because lots of people will notice the difference that you make.

Accept responsibility for the outcome. Don’t blame others for your mistakes. You will never learn from a mistake that you won’t admit and when you don’t accept responsibility for your mistakes you at least inadvertently shift the blame to someone else; that does not improve other people’s perception of you. Mistakes happen, they are a part, an important part, of growing. I wouldn’t recommend highlighting your mistakes but don’t try to hide them either.

Recognize others….for their success and yours. People crave recognition! Even people who say that don’t need any recognition literally crave it. It’s a basic human need. So fill that need for others, praise them early and often. Be intentional about looking for good things other people do and be lavish in your recognition. Also remember that it’s very likely that others contributed to your success, don’t forget to share your success with them through public recognition. No one, I mean no one, succeeds completely on their own. So don’t behave as though you did.

Influence is built, little by little, day after day. If you want to earn the commitment of your people then commit to build your influence every single day.

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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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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?

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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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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.