What is leadership?
Leadership is an intangible thing that one possesses. It can stem from a position, grade, office, or situation in which an individual or group of individuals are required to take charge.
When we discuss leadership, we have to take a look at how it comes about. You see, simply calling oneself a leader means no more than calling oneself a spoon, especially without sufficient knowledge and experience in what being a leader entails.
According to the US Army’s Field Manual concerning leadership:
An Army leader is anyone who by virtue of assumed role or assigned responsibility inspires and influences people to accomplish organizational goals. Army leaders motivate people both inside and outside the chain of command to pursue actions, focus thinking, and shape decisions for the greater good of the organization. – FM 6-22 Army Leadership
So how does this apply to the ‘civilian’ world? Well, the definition is pretty straightforward in terms of the key elements involved with being a leader.
*Shaping Decisions for the Greater Good
These three tenants are extremely important when it comes to designating someone to be a leader. You see, simply declaring yourself to “be a leader” means nothing. It takes these three items and so much more.
A good leader understands that ‘motivating people’ is so much more than simply telling someone what to do. Yes, it is entirely possible to simply stamp your foot and whine to goad people into doing things if that’s all you can fall back on. This has been widely observed throughout history and, hey, many people get by while operating in this manner.
But true leadership means providing a sufficient reason for those subordinate to the leader to want to obey their leaders.
This is accomplished in a variety of ways.
First of all, a leader needs to be someone of character. Someone who not only can be trusted inside and outside of work, but who builds and maintains trust within their organization. While those in leadership roles should always maintain a distance of sorts from those subordinate to them in order to prevent compromising their position, it helps for the leader to relate to the people they’re around while in a working environment. Building that trust means not coming into the office on Monday and acting like a tin pot dictator. Not acting like a bully. Not shoving people around and using brute force. Essentially – whining your way through life.
Building that trust comes from showing that you truly care about those under you in the organization. That even though you’ve earned the title of ‘leader’ you still understand that you, too, are a human and are not ‘better’ than anyone around you. You’ve just been selected to handle a different level of responsibility.
So why is this more important than just sounding like the lamentation of someone fed up with terrible leadership?
Well, let’s look at a case study from my own personal experience. I’ve dubbed this my Plateau Theory.
Let’s posit a hypothetical situation for the purposes of this study:
Let’s say that there exists a small group of ten people who are tasked to provide some type of output for your organization. This output can be in the form of report generation, sales, production, whatever you like.
Let’s say that these individuals work a 9 to 5 hour work day from Monday to Friday. Your job as their supervisor is to come into their area and ensure that everyone is at work on time; ensure they are performing up to standard; ensure that their work is quality; and that they have purpose and direction.
Now, let’s also say that you are a hard-nosed individual due to whatever psychological reason, personal reason, or external reason. You feel it necessary to threaten your subordinates, yell at them, get in their faces, and make unreasonable demands of those who work under you. Essentially in this situation, you are the proverbial Toxic Leader (more on this to follow.)
Your employees (this was observed from personal experience and action) will perform precisely to the level at which is needed in order to shut you up and prevent themselves from getting in trouble.
At this point in time, many people may point out the fact that this, yes, was effective in producing results. That is not up for debate. Those results may even make you, the leader; look very good in the eyes of those outside of your organization. Your numbers will be exactly where you want them to be. No more. No less.
However, let’s look at what will not be happening in such an environment: by acting in such a manner, failing to build trust in your subordinates, failing to instill a sense of camaraderie and showing yourself to be a person of virtue, trust, and character, your employees will be much less inclined to want to perform above and beyond the standard you’re enforcing. They won’t be as inclined to go out of their way to promote increases in efficiency of the process. They will not ‘have your back’ in situations where you need them to.
So, in essence, what happens is the work output stays steady at a level and neither drops below or rises above that level. It plateaus.
More on the effects can be found here.
To specifically address toxic leaders:
A toxic leader is someone who abuses the leader – follower relationship and leaves the organization in worse condition than what it was when they found it. There are many subsets of ‘toxic leadership’ and the one we specifically discussed here was a ‘little hitler’ style of leadership. More information can be found here.
Some of the traits displayed are: perfectionist attitudes; condescending/glib attitudes; shallow and lacking of self-confidence, resulting in aggressive behavior to cope; discriminatory attitudes; causes workplace division; arrogance; inability to accept responsibility for one’s own actions; and a few others. (Many of these apply to our “hypothetical” situation from earlier.)
If you know of anyone who meets these qualifying factors, please be aware that you are doing more good than harm by taking all possible steps to report their behavior as high as you need to go in order to have the situation addressed. These types of individuals are not a benefit to the organization!
Well, we kind of went off on a tangent there. So how do we go about motivating people?
This topic can be rather broad and could cover its own research paper or dissertation. So, we’ll cover some basics.
1) Providing goals. Goals are a good, easy way to motivate an organization’s personnel to push forward; especially goals that tie into benefitting the team as a whole. Goals, especially for businesses operating online, can be something as easy as “100,000 Page Views” or “Ad Revenue of $75,000” or something of that nature. Once the goals or achievements are reached, the group can celebrate as a whole and perhaps the leadership can even offer incentives or rewards for the fact the team made the milestone.
2) Providing Incentives. Incentives can drive employees forward. They can drive people to perform well above and beyond what they would with no incentives other than their pay. Incentives should also be tailored to be specific to your organization. Should you have to provide incentives? Not necessarily. But they are very good ways to foster growth.
3) Communicating. There will be another article covering communication. However, by allowing your employees to have a say in how they do their jobs, to an extent, can have a very positive impact on the organization. No one will know a job or process better than the individual engaged in performing it. Looking at that, simply knowing that the leadership is open to discussion, open to new ideas, and open to looking for ways to improve and make things more efficient can lead to employees coming up with ingenious ideas that end up helping the organization.
4) Building Trust. Trust is a finicky thing and one that goes hand in hand with loyalty. Simply expecting that your employees are going to be loyal to you is a very ignorant mindset to be in. You have to show them that as their leader, you care about them, you have to show them that you too will do whatever it is you’re expecting them to do, and you have to show them that you can be approached. Building that trust comes from being available when your employees need you to talk about their concerns, their welfare, and their goals.
In the words of Colin Powell: “The day Soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
Obviously, these are but a few brief examples of the myriad ways to motivate people to perform. The core pieces of the equation for any good leader who wishes to motivate their personnel to perform are as follows:
Character. Trust. Loyalty. Charisma. Communicative.
With these attributes, it is very hard to go wrong in terms of prodding people into action.
Thinking has become one of those things highly discussed but lightly practiced.
By that, I mean that it seems in our day and age, there is very little emphasis on critical thought. On taking the time to really slow down and objectively analyze a set of data in order to come to logical, clear conclusions about the situation being addressed or focused on. We get too wrapped up in party lines, in narrow viewpoints, and in channeled learning processes that we forget how to think outside of the box and be objective.
So, how exactly does someone ‘focus thinking’?
Well, first of all, thinking has to be promoted within the organization. The people involved have to understand that thinking is intrinsic to the organization as a whole. It has to be emphasized that thinking is a good thing. Thinking is something that needs to occur within the environment for people to be successful. Thinking is what creates, defines, and improves an organization.
Simply having mindless drones won’t do in many of the cutting edge sectors of the economy today.
1) Creating. Like it or not, every society has and needs thinkers. There must be those people who are not willing to simply follow a party line, or a specific ‘mold’ and refuse to look outside of the bounds of their little structure. Those types of people are in your organization somewhere. You may know them, you may not, but they are there. These thinkers are the ones who you can count on to provide: 1) detailed analyses and feedback on your organization. 2) Their job. 3) Ways they think the entire situation can be improved.
2) Defining. The next step a thinker takes is to catalogue, categorize, and classify everything around them. To truly provide clarification and understanding of what is going on and use this ability to seek results in the organization. These are the people who will help a good leader succeed by making that leader look smarter than they usually are.
3) Improving. This word has been tossed around a lot. But let’s really dissect what it means to improve the organization. Simply coming in, taking over, and implementing one vision alone doesn’t necessarily mean that this is right or even actually ‘improves’ anything. While in some cases this does improve things, there is always a more efficient way of doing things. That being said, by taking into account what is going on around you, and by seeking feedback from those under you in your organization, you will establish a precedent in which ingenious and forward thinking are rewarded for the benefit of the team.
A leader needs to make it known throughout their employee base that coming up with ideas and proposing those ideas to the leadership is not something to be feared or looked down upon. This is something that is accepted and praised. In many cases, there are ways to vastly improve processes and promote efficiency throughout the organization.
A good leader should never be afraid of or punish someone who presents them with an alternate way of doing things, an idea for a new methodology, or feedback on the way things are operating.
By fostering thinking amongst the employees under your charge, you will be surprised at the results.
Shaping Decisions for the Greater Good
A common trap that we all tend to fall into is the mindset that we are eternal. We tend to get into a mindset that our little piece of the organization, the process, the goal somehow ‘belongs’ to us.
What we have to remember is that we are simply custodians for the next generation as they are for the one that will supplant them later on down the road. We must be a society of forward-thinking people. That being said, improvements should always be at the back of every employee’s mind as they work at or for any group.
Each decision the leadership takes needs to always take at least two key factors into mind.
1) Vision/Mission of the organization. The leadership needs to analyze how the steps they are taking will help reach or work toward the vision of the company’s CEO. They need to analyze all possible effects of the decisions they make and compare those effects with how they impact the organization.
2) The People. The leadership should identify how the decisions they are making will impact their employees and how the effects from those decisions will impact everyone within the organization. A true leader cares about those under them and everything they do is for the benefit of those personnel at all times.
By taking the time to completely analyze the entire picture prior to implementing sweeping changes, a good leader can use the assets available to them in order to effect positive, productive change on their organization while at the same time fostering a good healthy working environment for those under them.
We’ve discussed some things at length here and it is my hope that I was able to give a bit of guidance on some facets of the complex beast that is leadership.
Being a true leader is no easy task and it is not for everyone. You’re going to have people who hate, others who love you; you’re going to have to make tough decisions that impact people in ways that you otherwise would shy away from ever having to make. What speaks to the virtue and ability of a true leader is how you get through the ordeals leadership brings and what kind of person you’re forged into at the end of your time in that position.
Take the time to get to know your employees.
Take the time to see who is who amongst them and learn how best to utilize them.
Take the time to realize that simply because you’re in charge doesn’t mean you’re not a human being too. This could save your life one day.
Take the time to understand that position doesn’t equal “knowledge or expertise.” Humble yourself. Remember, all good leaders are and were followers at some point.
Take the time to assess your faults and your weaknesses. Try to fix what you can, learn from your mistakes, and play to your strengths.
There is no legitimate instruction manual on how to be a good leader.
However, there are plenty of good resources to start with, here, here, and here (again, Google Scholar. I love it. 2,220,000 returns from a search on ‘Leadership.’ Better than having a handful of crap sites on deck to toss about when I need to make a point.)
Use the bits you think best applies to you, and ditch the stuff that doesn’t work. It’s a constant learning process, being in a leadership position. It is my sincerest hopes that you all excel in whatever walk of life you’re in and you do great things for your organization. Being a leader in the US Army since 2005 has been trying and difficult at times, but has shaped me into a better person than I was when I started.
Header Photo of Roman Centurion Lucius Vorenus © HBO.