One doesn’t have to look far to see the perceived division between leaders and followers. Motivational posters, overly-hyped and overpaid event speakers, social media memes, and even our own expressions force us to decide if we are a Leader or a follower. We’re led to believe we must be one or the other, biased heavily towards being a leader with a negative views of followers. Here are a few things I’ve figured out and the rest? Well, I’m still learning as I go.
- What works for one, does not always work for another. Like many, I have read countless books, attended many seminars, and listened to numerous bombastic speakers on the topic of leadership and what makes a great leader. There is no substitute for experience gained through trial and error coupled with a willingness to learn. Be a sponge and take everything on board, but be a filter and select that which works for you. Don’t cast aside something that works; refine, not replace.
- Titles don’t make leaders; attitudes do. Just having the title of “Manager”, “Coordinator”, “Director”, “Leader” does not automatically make someone a leader. Their ability to engage people, drive results, and willingness to take responsibilities, ideas and suggestions on board does. I’ve always been of the mind that in order to lead, you must understand that which you are leading. Far too many times I’ve encountered directors that were dictators and managers that preferred to delegate and then take credit. Most of all, no matter how much you lead, always be willing to follow.
- Personally invest yourself. A job is what you do for someone else; a career is what you do for yourself. We’re often told that we get out of life what we put in but I don’t think that is completely true. Why would we invest in something if we don’t stand to gain something? Rather than a negative or equal return, we look for positive returns. Bonuses, new skills, more experience, and feeling of personal satisfaction are just some of the things we gain by personally investing ourselves.
- You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Sending your team on courses, to seminars, and inviting those to after-hours events may look like participation but unless they’re engaged, they’re like the proverbial horse without a thirst. Give them a reason on a personal level to get involved. If your team is rewarded on some level, ultimately the organisation that rewards them will be as well.
- Communicate with people, not with technology. Put down the phone, step away from the keyboard, and put away your tablet and smartphone. Get up from your desk and venture into the wild and interface with actual, live people. I know they can be scary but thousands of years of face-to-face interaction existed long before electronics. It just works.
- “Open door _____day”. At one point, I used to block out my calendar on Friday mornings until noon deliberately to give anyone the chance to come and speak with me, alone or in groups, about anything and everything, personal or work-related. I think that to be a good leader, one has to freely listen to and consider anything put forward by followers. Some of the best ideas can come about this way. I need my team to understand I’m not just acting in my own or the executives’ best interests, but also in theirs. Gary Vaynerchuk puts it very well when he insists that he works for his employees and not the other way around.
- Learn not just from positive examples, but from all examples. Many methods seem to focus almost completely on the positive aspects yet negate the rest, neutral or negative. I’d like to think that over time I have shared many positive traits with others whether I was aware or not but just as equally that any of my negative traits were taken on board and served as a lesson. It’s exactly how I have learned from others. Sometimes it is not so much about what to do, but what not to do instead.
- Have the difficult conversations. Many people are non-confrontational and will simply acquiesce or avoid when placed in an uncomfortable situation. You are there because that situation needs to be dealt with or at the very least addressed lest it continues unchecked.
- Recognise that not everyone is going to like you and be fine with it. How someone feels about you is more a reflection of how they feel about themselves. You can try to understand and you can try to help but in the end, they must help themselves. Setting aside your differences to accomplish a common goal is professionalism. If you can’t, refer to point number 8 above.
- Be of two minds. I prefer to think as both teacher and student; master and apprentice. As we learn from one, we impart that knowledge on to another and the cycle continues. We never stop learning and we never stop teaching whether we’re aware of it or not.
- Bonus Point! Some of the best lessons in life are given by those who were oblivious to the free knowledge they were sharing. The arrogant businessman in the café. The school children that helped an elderly woman when she fell. The sales assistant that smiled for every customer. The boss that yelled every word he spoke. The car dealer that would leave you her car while she took yours in for service. The teacher that was always late for class. From every one of those examples and thousands more, I was a follower but the lessons developed my leadership skills even further.
Some days you just need to act like the Penguins in the movie “Madagascar”: “Just smile and wave, boys, just smile and wave.” It may not get easier, but it always gets better.