Thousands of books have been written on the subject of leadership – all promising the secret formulae that will allow people to maximise their leadership skills. I currently have the privilege of holding a significant leadership role in the UK but am yet to write my own book documenting this experience. Despite this, I am still able to share my perspective for anyone interested in my world and complexities of leadership.
Over the years, I’ve read many leadership books with “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey and “Good to Great” by Jim Collins becoming two of my favourites. However, the more I read, the more I realised that even the best books have limitations in the world of business and the incredibly fast paced world of change that we experience.
Covid did change the world. It accelerated many of the behavioural yearnings in human beings. Summarised, these sound like “I want a better job with a better work life balance”, “I want better renumeration and less travel” and “everything I want should be instant.” While these are bold, sweeping statements for the UK population that do not necessarily reflect everyone’s perspective, elements of these have definitely been felt in industry. Similarly, Brexit has also created significant issues for industry, but unfortunately, in political terms, it seems to be a hot potato that no one has the hands for!
In modern business, the days of leaders commanding and controlling are over. I believe that leaders and colleagues are now equal in the work that needs to be done in order to create a harmonious, symbiotic business relationship. Nowadays, there are endless opportunities for creating an unhappy colleague and while the leader should create the vision and strategy, culture and execution can trump both and invariably do.
When I look at business, especially in competitive industries, the only thing that differs are the people they employ and the decisions they make. Everything else can be copied. Of course, different businesses will have structural advantages and disadvantages, but there tends to be a general baseline as you move forward.
One of the best tests for a leader is to reflect on what your colleagues say about you to their friends and family. What words do they choose to describe you? How your colleagues perceive you is often far more indicative and insightful than some of your own performance reviews. Are you likeable? Are you human? Are you kind? You may be thinking these are softer skills, but this isn’t the case. They’re critical for creating the bond of trust that you need to have within your workforce as it’s important to be credible and fair in the role of a leader.
There are a huge number of other leadership assets people look for, including vision, strategic thinking, critical thinking, inspiration, etc, and all are very important. However, these skills can be made completely redundant if you’re not trusted or well liked.
My daughter has a poster on her wall that says, “Dance like no one is watching” and I believe it’s similar with colleagues. How do they do their job and fulfil their duties when you’re not watching them? To build a workforce that runs just as smoothly in your absence is a world built with discretionary effort, care, passion and commitment.
We will have all worked for various leaders in the past, allowing us the chance to learn what worked and what didn’t work from the perspective of the colleague or mentee. Cast your mind back and think about how it felt to be led by them. Focus less on what your head says and more on what your heart says. What percentage of the time did you do your best work for them and why? When you think about your own team today, what percentage of their time do they do their best work for you?
Naturally, everyone will want and need something different from their leader, so there isn’t a one size fits all method of leadership. You must be versatile and willing to adapt your style instinctively for both the individual and the situations you may find yourself in. Being diverse but fair in how you lead may sound like an impossible task but often yields the best results.
I’m not writing this piece because I see myself as an expert. This is my perspective and I’m 100% sure that anyone that’s ever worked for me will have experienced many moments of dissatisfaction. I have learnt that the best way to counter this problem is to try and recognise the signs of discontentment happening before it completely manifests in order to avoid business relationship breakdowns. For this, communication is key.
Clear, honest communication throughout your business relationship is important, however, with new team members, it is absolutely vital. Ask questions including “How do you like to be managed?”, “What doesn’t work for you?”, “How do you want to be communicated with?”, “What matters to you in work and at home?” When the answers come, really listen – even if they’re not the answers you want to hear. When this happens, don’t respond immediately. Instead, reflect on it. Why do they want what they asked for? What are the consequences to you and to them on being flexible?
One of the most common causes of failure for any leader is their inability to be honest whilst avoiding difficult conversations. In my experience, the anticipation and thought of the conversation is always far worse than the actual event and if it is done sensitively with good examples and the right intentions, it can be like unlocking a door on new possibilities and potentials. You only own 50% of the reaction and 50% of the emotion in that discussion so be thoughtful about what your 50% shows up like. You should be kind, human, and honest and use understanding language and phrases such as “this is how I see the situation, is there something I’m unaware of that you could help me understand better?”
It is also important to be conscious of the amount of physical effort, action and time you put into your diary to improve the capability of your team. Take a look at your diary from last week, how much time did you actually dedicate to this? For some reason, we can spend more time thinking about our team’s performance than actively helping them get better. Unless telepathy is real, we won’t be making a lot of difference to them.
Fun and humour as a leader is an interesting balance. It helps with likeability, but it can’t be at someone’s expense or something that’s too niche because not everyone has the same sense of humour. It’s no secret that most people enjoy being able to laugh at work, so think about incorporating a kind of fun that’s wholesome and inclusive enough to get your team even more passionate about what they do together. Try and avoid “banter” however, I find it unhelpful as a leader’s tool.
Ultimately, leadership, the people in your team and the world are all multifaceted and extremely complex. The more you really listen to what matters to your team, the better your leadership skills will become. You will evolve with your own life lessons and experiences whilst gaining greater perspective with every difficult situation you survive. The wonderful thing about growing as a leader is that you change shape over time, and you never go back.
If there’s anything that you take away from this piece, I’d love for it to be this: Tomorrow, prioritise kindness and see what happens!
I’d love to hear from you,