By Angela Noel
October 16, 2107
Some bosses inspire fear, others devotion. The call to leadership asks for the best in a person, but does not always get it. Bosses make our lives better or worse with the simplest of inconsequential acts. A “good job” can mean the world. A well-placed critique can change a career. But a thoughtless comment will damage any relationship, never more so than when one person has the ability to terminate the other’s livelihood. Worse, a pattern of ego-driven blindness can turn a leader into an employee’s personal Satan.
There are clearly many wrong ways to lead. But countless books on the how-to’s or success stories of leadership try to teach the right way. The sheer abundance of these volumes prove there really is no one “right way.” No definitive roadmap exists for an individual to follow in order to become an influential, respected, and beloved leader.
Even definitions of what equates to a “great” leader differ. Some, like Jeff Bezos build towering empires. Others, like Nelson Mandela, lead nations. Still others lead in small, everyday ways, impacting lives without ever realizing the full extent of their influence.
It’s this last group, more than any of the Buffets, Churchills, or Sandbergs out there, who have taught me the most about qualities of leadership. Lucky for me, I’ve had many of these everyday-greats enter my life.
They share few things in common at first glance. Extroverts and introverts. Men and women. Thinkers and strategists. Technical wizards and creative geniuses. Kind souls and analysts. But on closer inspection, though their approaches were unique, each leader found a way to connect to the universal. They see the world through the eyes of service, not ego. These leaders aspire towards greatness, not to aggrandize themselves, but to inspire and motivate others.
They may not loom large in the world as a whole, but in my life, they are giants. From their example, five core traits emerge.
It might seem obvious but it’s not. Not all bosses see the people who report to them as actual human beings. Instead, they treat their direct reports like drones, valuable only in what he or she can contribute to the hive or to the leader’s prestige or success. But, the great ones see the person, not just their work. I’ve had many excellent bosses who demonstrated the qualities/actions in this article in Inc., “10 Things Great Bosses Do to Show They Care About Their Employees.”
For example, one of my bosses knew of my interest in writing and sent an email on my behalf to another department, praising me and encouraging them to use my writing skills. This would have meant time away from my core role, but she knew both that the company could benefit, and that I wanted to use more of my writing in my day-to-day work. She served as the matchmaker between my goals, skills, and passions, with other organizational opportunities.
Another leader, knowing I’d been invited to speak to a team about goal setting, offered to be my audience as I practiced my presentation. He offered advice and even came to the session to support me as I delivered my talk.
Leaders go beyond the day-to-day; they invest in relationships.
Establishing mutual trust doesn’t happen right away, nor should it. An excellent book I’ve mentioned before, The Art of Possibility, offers an excellent idea. It introduces the practice of “Giving an A” as part of enhancing relationships both at home and at work. “When you give an A,” say authors Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, “you find yourself speaking to people not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realize themselves.” A great boss knows how to establish trust through a foundation of respect.
Trusting me to do my work and do it well means the world to me and many other employees. In fact, demonstrating trust in the team is essential to being trusted. One boss I had made comments to me about another member of the team. This person questioned whether my teammate was truly effective or committed. Immediately, my trust in this leader dipped.
In contrast, when a new boss came on board, this individual took the time to understand my teammate’s schedule and work output (which was both high quality and quantity). Instead of questioning the employee’s commitment this boss gave the employee an A. From this leader, I heard only affirmations about the individual’s contribution.
Taking the time to respect others and build trust results in better relationships and ultimately, better outcomes for all.
In an article in CEO Magazine, the author cites a survey of 100,000 people. Eighty-nine percent of respondents felt that honesty was the most important quality a leader can possess. Unfortunately, many leaders believe they are honest but aren’t perceived that way. The disconnect lies in the difference between words and actions. A boss can say, “I trust you,” but then hovers over his or her team members, second-guesses decisions, or undermines the credibility of employees in front of others.
Behavioral integrity, or alignment between what we say and what we do, is critical in any successful relationship. It is, as the author of “Honesty: The Single Most Important Leadership Value,” states the “gateway for trust and inspiration.”
The book Leadership and Self-Deception explores the importance and almost epidemic problem of leaders who act in ways contrary to their expressed values. These can be little things, like telling employees how important work/life balance is, but still sending emails and text messages to employees at all hours. Or much bigger things, like taking credit for an employee’s idea. One of the best ways to combat self-deception and encourage openness and honesty, is for a boss to acknowledge his or her mistakes or opportunities for improvement.
One of my bosses, during the annual review season, acknowledged the areas she had been working on, and asked for feedback from the team on some of her core goals. She told us how she had engaged in her own development opportunities and brought back to us any of the learning she gained from her efforts that seemed relevant to us all. By acknowledging and encouraging her own growth mindset, she enabled the rest of the team to see learning, even failing, as a valuable asset, rather than a liability.
When whole organizations act counter to their values and the culture becomes toxic, true leaders have a far more difficult time. But, it’s during these times that leadership is paramount. It was during this type of experience when one boss gave me excellent advice about honesty. He said, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.” Our organization had been going through massive change, and trusting anyone during that time proved complicated. Understanding that people show who they are, not only in their words, but in their actions too, was his way of helping me navigate through the challenge. He, a C-level executive, shielded me from much of the turmoil without hiding from me how dysfunctional things had become.
Everyone on a team will need something different from a leader. Personally, I need a sounding board. I need to be able to talk through my ideas out loud. I don’t need my problems to be solved for me, but I need a forum for discussion. Other people need to be left entirely alone. They need silence and space. A great leader finds the secret sauce to unlocking the potential in each individual. He or she won’t make assumptions, but will ask a lot of questions.
As in this article from Forbes, individualizing to the needs of every employee requires a host of different strategies. Maybe flexible work arrangements are best for one person, but time to pursue a passion project is better for another. Within boundaries, and where trust and respect already exist, leaders with the ability to individualize retain more quality employees and increase productivity.
Case in point, one of my teammates loved volunteering, another wanted to put his children on the bus in the morning, and I, of course, had my writing. For each of us, our boss’ challenge was to establish boundaries on work expectations, but to genuinely and enthusiastically seek a way to say yes to our goals. And she did, without exception.
5. Expectation of Greatness
Did you know that the origin of the word parenting comes from Latin and means “to bring forth?” I didn’t, until I read Grit by Angela Duckworth. I recoil at the idea that a boss is like a parent, but in that respect, the parallels are obvious. Both a leader and a parent must call forth the best in those of us who, by nature or by choice, depend on their wisdom.
Like the successful parents Duckworth talks about in her book, a great leader will demand excellence and offer the unflagging support needed to achieve it. He or she will know our capabilities and set targets just beyond where they know we’re at today. Then, he or she will get out of the way. Like that moment when you’re learning to ride a bike and whomever is teaching you just knows it’s time to let go–when your own momentum is enough to carry you forward–that’s when a leader sets you free.
I’ve had my bike let go a little too early, then crashed and burned. Other leaders have held on too long, holding me back when all I wanted to do was ride. The sweet spot is in between. One of my bosses worked hard at finding this balance. Her own interest in a topic made it hard for her to bow out. But, because I knew this about her, and knew if I asked, she’d let go, that’s exactly what I did. Together, we decided it was time for her to step out, and for me to lead. She demanded excellence from me. I was happy to oblige.
The Result of Everyday Greatness
Because of the incredible trust, honesty, expectations, and genuine care a particularly exceptional leader offered me, when I told her I was approached with an opportunity from another organization, she hugged me. She expressed how proud she was of me, told me how sad she’d be if I left, but assured me I’d always have her support. I heard once that employees don’t leave companies, they leave their bosses. In my case, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I loved that company. I love my boss, my team, and my job. But, contribution is much larger than a single role in a single organization. It’s a lifetime’s worth of effort married to a universe of possibility. Sometimes we have to leap.
A great boss looks forward to this leap for his or her employees. Yes, there’s sadness, and even more work because filling a gap left by a trusted employee means effort and time. But these everyday-excellent leaders regulate their egos with their hearts. Therefore, success of his or her team members, no matter what form it takes, is a point of sincere pride–even joy.
Leaders who inspire devotion are those who see leadership not as a job, but as a calling. People are their business, first and foremost. Go find these leaders to work for. And go be one yourself if it’s in you. You’ll never regret it.
Go forth. Be you. Be awesome, every day.
Your turn: What qualities have you appreciated in your leaders? What did he or she do to encourage you to reach your potential?