We hear a lot about leadership in the news. Almost every day, we see political candidates trying to position themselves as strong leaders, are frustrated by sports teams who are leader-less, or are inspired by business icons who have led their company to greater success.
But what is leadership — and how is it different from management?
It’s far easier to spot a lack of leadership than to identify effective leadership. Employees can feel the void that should be filled by a good leader, and their effectiveness will dip because of it.
As someone in a leadership role, you can take the reins and energize those employees who are lacking direction by going beyond your responsibilities as a manager and adopting the mindset of a leader.
A leader’s mindset is driven by one idea: they’ll do almost anything to raise the standard of those around them. You might think that would entail cracking down on poor performers, but, in reality, leaders spend far more time encouraging those around them than they do punishing underperforming employees.
Here are a few ways you can raise the standard of those around you and get the most from them.
As a leader, you must humble yourself and realize that those you lead are, quite often, more intelligent and capable than you. They may not be as driven or as focused, but that can change under the correct leadership style.
The best way to get the most from intelligent but underutilized employees is to involve them in the innovation process. Innovation looks different for every company and industry, so there’s no “right” way to bring employees on board. Instead, your job is to help employees understand that innovation is a long-term process of tinkering and that their ideas can make a real difference in the company.
However, simply telling employees that they are involved in innovation is not enough — you have to prove it by empathizing with them and respecting their contributions.
Empathizing with employees sounds easy, but is, in fact, a difficult behavior to maintain as a leader. That’s because the people you lead are always going through something — whether that’s related to work or not.
As a leader, the best thing you can do is listen with intention. To do this, you should go out of your way to get interested in your people and should show concern for their lives, aspirations, and the challenges they face. When employees are sharing their ideas or concerns, you must give them your full attention — there are few things more detrimental to employee motivation than leaders who cut conversations short because of a phone call or because you deem a different task to be more important.
The recent Covid pandemic makes empathizing with your employees even harder. Around the globe, folks have lost loved ones, have suffered from real financial insecurity, and have had their lives turned upside down.
As a leader, it’s not your job to “fix” everything — but you should educate yourself so you know how to give good advice and support. For example, during the pandemic, millions of Americans lost their jobs. This put a lot of people into unexpected financial hardship. As a leader, you can’t make this problem disappear, but you can point employees in the right direction or — even better — can advocate on their behalf for things like pay raises and increased bonuses if your company is performing well.
Empathy alone is not enough — employees will soon realize you can’t help them, and will not appreciate the lack of action on your part. Once you’ve understood the challenges an employee faces, it becomes your job to advocate for them and help them appropriately.
Advocacy looks different depending on the context, but you should set dedicated time aside to consider how your business can make life easier for your employees. To do this, you should combine the lessons you’ve learned from listening to employees with the knowledge you have about the business and what it can, or should, offer.
Remember, advocacy isn’t “doing someone a favor” — it’s your job to work hard on the behalf of employees. Good advocacy creates a pleasant workplace environment, and employees will become increasingly loyal and motivated.
Learn From Leaders
The best way to become a leader is to immerse yourself in the teachings of other effective leaders. This may come naturally from the role models you’ve had in life, or you might need to actively seek out new knowledge by reading, listening, and engaging with leaders and their lessons. Here are a few places you can look for great leadership lessons:
- Harvard Business Review: Harvard has one of the best MBA programs in the country, and regularly posts interviews with leadership legends like Alex Ferguson.
- London Business School: The London Business School hosts a podcast that features lessons on leadership.
- Your Local Bookshop: There are literally thousands of books on leadership. Not all will be right for you, but you can start by tethering yourself to leadership in something you find interesting — for example, leadership books written by football coaches or business icons that you are inspired by.
Simply put, leadership is all about going beyond your basic responsibilities. You should listen to those you lead, and find ways to raise their performance by publicly valuing their contributions and by advocating for them with authenticity.
By Indiana Lee, BOSS contributor