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When I started out in my own leadership as a young lad, I made many mistakes that were centred on me. I remember one (very embarrassing to recollect) time at the end of my teen years when I browbeat a subordinate (in a volunteer capacity, no less) for not adhering strictly to my instructions. She was actually going above and beyond, but I was more concerned with whether someone was following my orders. I realised my error shortly thereafter and resolved never to commit that error ever again.
Unfortunately, it’s still embarrassing to see others commit this same error of ego day in and day out, even after they’ve been in ‘leadership’ for decades. The pros realise they need to move beyond that tropism.
So here are 3 ways you can immediately lead more like a pro. These don’t always require huge changes in routine, but they may require a huge change of mindset and manner. Who said leadership was for the faint of heart?
1. Realise It’s Not About You
One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is to think that leadership is primarily about them.
I was discussing this recently with a leader in public education who has served with distinction for decades. He has a history and reputation as a school planter and builder – developing schools from initial conception through to their successful running and operations over some years and then handing over to the leaders he’s developed to run the schools after his departure.
“I realised some time ago that leadership was about helping my people to shine, not me. That’s how you get the best results.”
If you thought it was hard to build your business, try doing it on the shoestring budget that he has had to develop worthy public facilities, personnel, community, reputation and results for his schools. This leader recognised that it was helping his people to use their gifts and talents to achieve greater success that was his most important activity.
Political leaders of all stripes often make this rookie mistake of believing their leadership is about what they do. Even the ‘leader of the free world’ appears to make this mistake. Abraham Lincoln, apparently, did not make this mistake, as he surrounded himself with people who were better at what they did than he was, and relied on them. But you must realise …
Leadership is not about you. It’s about the people you lead and serve.
After many years of successful leadership, the school leader above is still looking for ways to improve how he leads and develops his people. Which leads to the next point…
2. Get To Know Your People
If you need to rely on your people, then you need to know them inside and out.
I was discussing workplace management with the top manager of a high performing executive recruitment firm. He was frustrated that he wanted to lead one way, while the “old guard” had a very impersonal method of leading. He actually expresses aspects of his personal life at work, tells others about his children’s accomplishments and what’s happening with his home life, while the almost retired owners keep saying,
“We don’t want any of that personal stuff. Leave it out of the workplace!”
But this executive had a reasoned take on his approach:
“I learned in the army that I had to know the histories, the background, the events and character of everyone in my unit. Because you had to know whether you could trust that person with your life. You had to know whether they were up to the battle on any given day. You had to know how to support, encourage and help them at any given moment. And that meant knowing intimately what was going on with them.”
You have to be able to trust those around you like your life depends on it. Because it may well do! And by knowing them, you will know how to get the best out of them every day!
I know ‘leaders’ who wonder why everyone is not absolutely at their best, just following their orders and ‘doing what they’ve been told’. They think, when people are underperforming, that the solution is to clean the slate and just hire a fresh batch of people to do the job. But I’ve got news for you: performance is dependent on leadership. The new recruits will start off fresh, but will quickly wither and wilt without the leader getting to know, encourage and work with their individual strengths and weaknesses.
And that’s how a leader creates an atmosphere of true teamwork, support and united action. Because people will emulate with others the kind of leadership they experience and value. Which leads us to your legacy …
3. Work On Your Legacy Now
Your legacy is being created every day.
I work with senior executives and CEOs who, sometimes at the latter stages of their careers, just begin to consider, “What legacy shall I plan to leave?” But the reality is that your daily choices; the routines of attitude, behaviour and norms (the culture) that you establish; the goals, aspirations and determinations that you drive through the organisation by both your words and deeds will be your true legacy. For example: You may try to, in your last days, manufacture a magnanimous reputation after a life of scroogery, but people recognise that the last-minute gesture is empty. It only reinforces the harsh reality of the past.
Long-term planning for the continuance of your legacy can be important. I was discussing with one Managing Director/CEO how he would leave a legacy after his retirement. He’s got quite some time to go and has built a successful business that employs a large number of staff and services a wide range of clients. Their success as a business has rested with the success of his clients. But there’s more to do and he needs to ensure that the next phases are undertaken as the market and forces around his company change substantially. He has the capacity to lead their own strategic change, but RIGHT NOW he needs to work through the strategies, approaches and development that will create the legacy that he can be proud of.
More mundanely: your legacy will be characterised by your approach and attitude to your business, your leadership, your people and your family and friends. Some leaders think their legacy will be their name on the front of the building. It’s not. Sometimes part of our legacy may be the products we create: iPhones, software, vehicles, processes, books, foundations, and otherwise.
But people carry your legacy with you wherever they go, despite whatever happens to your organisation, through the memories and artifacts in their lives that you create.
That’s something to work on now.
© 2014 Peter J. McLean
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