Business owners and managers everywhere try to be better leaders. They rely on mentors, and they learn from writers on the subject, many of whom are leaders who improved through trial and error.
Three books have shaped my thinking about leadership: Leadership Is an Art, by Max De Pree; On Becoming a Leader, by Warren Bennis; and Servant Leadership, by Robert Greenleaf.
Here are the most important lessons I’ve learned from them about the role of the leader.
What Is Leadership?
It’s been said that leaders are born, not made, but I disagree. George Washington, Winston Churchill, George Patton, and Margaret Thatcher are often named as natural-born leaders, but each struggled to become the leader they ultimately were. Becoming and being a good leader is a lifelong journey. The principles and practices of leadership can be learned, but it requires a core sensibility about the nature and importance of leadership. Real leadership in business springs from a deep commitment to providing a workplace that meets people’s needs for belonging, contributing, doing meaningful work, and having the opportunity to grow.
De Pree sums it up, declaring that leadership is more an art than it is a list of things to do; it’s based on deeply held beliefs and principles. Bennis teaches us that followers want from their leaders these four things: direction, structure, trust, and hope.
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What Do Leaders Do?
Leaders Provide Direction
A leader’s most important role is to provide clear and compelling direction. This begins with a statement of the leader’s values and principles, of their hopes and plans for the company’s future. Then they must consistently demonstrate those values and principles in all of their words and actions. They must also surround themselves with people who share those values.
Leaders owe their followers a well-defined strategy for the company’s future growth, communicating that strategy to all team members, and helping everyone to fully understand their unique role in helping the company achieve its strategic objectives. Leaders ensure that all followers understand, embrace, and work toward achieving those objectives. And they provide momentum, sharing and celebrating progress toward achieving company goals, setting new targets, and providing needed resources. To continue the momentum, leaders must plan for the future leadership of the company. They must identify, develop, and nurture future leaders to ensure continuity and stability of leadership.
Leaders Create Structure
Leaders are accountable for creating the organizational structure, job roles, decision-making authority, and processes that enable team members to do high-quality work. Robert Greenleaf introduced us to the idea of “servant leadership,” in which the leader’s role is redefined as being accountable for removing the obstacles that prevent people from doing their best work.
Instead of creating a “command and control” environment, great leaders learn from followers what’s needed to enable those followers to do superior work, and leaders then focus on supporting the teams that produce the company’s products and do the company’s work.
De Pree says that a leader’s role is to polish, liberate, and enable the gifts that people bring to the organization. Leaders are accountable for the effectiveness of the company’s processes and empower their teams to efficiently execute them (doing the right things and doing things right). Leaders set the structure and processes; their teams enact and execute them.
Leaders Build Trust
The best leaders make it clear that they have confidence that their followers know what to do, how to do it, and that they will do their best work.
Trust in skills and accountability. Leaders have an obligation to ensure that everyone in the company has the skills necessary to perform their work, understands how their work serves the company’s objectives, and knows how the outcomes of their work are measured. Once those things are in place, leaders trust team members to be accountable for their own performance. Because leaders can’t know or observe everything that everyone in the organization does, trust is essential, and it is liberating for team members who are trusted to do great work.
Trusting commitment and good intentions. Building a culture of trust begins with creating a working environment where all members of the organization treat one another with respect, dignity, and encouragement. The foundation of trust is the leader’s belief that their followers are committed to the same goals, are competent to do their work, and are committed to doing their very best. The leader’s role is to establish the environment in which people can thrive, be respected, and be trusted to do great work. I’ve never met a single person who said, “My goal at work is to do a lousy job every day.” In the right environment, and with the right skills, people will almost always rise to excellence.
Just as important is that leaders recognize and act when it’s evident that some team members don’t share the company’s values or commitment. Too often managers endure the behaviors and performance of team members who aren’t on board, merely to avoid the inconvenience or discomfort of making a change. Effective leaders ensure that every member of the team is, to use Jim Collins’ metaphor from his book Good to Great, the right person on the bus, in the right seat.
Leaders Inspire Hope
Effective leaders are optimistic and hopeful. They “paint a picture” of the company’s future and infuse their followers with hope by providing encouragement, by sharing successes and progress toward achieving company goals, and by helping followers create their own future with the company.
Great leaders know that when they provide clear direction based on a set of values and principles, create and share a comprehensive strategy for the company’s future, and build the organizational structure and processes to ensure successful execution, the company’s prospects for the future are bright. Then, when they provide an environment where people can belong, contribute, do meaningful work, and grow, they can trust their teams to do great work. And they can say, “I’m a good leader.”
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