When it comes to leadership, there’s a common understanding that true leadership doesn’t require formal titles or roles. Rather, it involves our ability to inspire and rally those around us to commit their talents, creativity, and insights towards a shared purpose, and then doing whatever we can to help them to succeed in that effort.
It’s looking at leadership from that lens that’s compelled me to share these three important lessons – along with one of my own – from a most unlikely source of inspiration on what it takes to successfully lead others in today’s increasingly complex and fast-changing environment.
A few days ago, I watched an acceptance speech that actor Ashton Kutcher gave at a recent teen awards show. In accepting his award, Kutcher shared three lessons he’s learned in his work life that he wanted to share with the throngs of teens watching the show.
Although his message was meant to inspire the young viewers about their future work lives, some of the points he shared are equally important for leaders who want to ensure that they are providing the right environment to help those they lead to not only succeed, but thrive under their care.
1. Successful leaders put their employees ahead of themselves
At the start of his speech, Kutcher shared a list of the various mundane, manual-labour jobs he did at the start of his work career – things like carrying roof shingles onto rooftops, being a dishwasher at a restaurant, and sweeping cereal dust off a factory floor. After listing some of his past jobs, Kutcher tells his audience “I never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job”.
As leaders in our organization, it’s easy to look at our roles as being more important than what our employees do. But successful leaders recognize that there’s nothing their employees do that they wouldn’t be willing to do themselves because their employees’ work is what ultimately leads to our collective success.
A good example of this is Goodyear’s Director of Commercial Manufacturing Billy R. Taylor who, as the plant manager of the Goodyear Fayetteville plant, actually cleaned the bathrooms at this facility in order to show his hourly wage employees that he cared about their working conditions because he wanted them to succeed.
On another occasion, he took over cleaning his office until such time that the plant labs were properly cleaned, once again with the intent of showing his employees that he wasn’t willing to put himself ahead of his team because he viewed his role as being more critical to their plant’s success.
As leaders, if we want to be able to tap into the discretionary effort of our employees, we need to show them that we’re being attentive to the day-to-day realities they face and that we’re willing to address them before we worry about such matters as clearing our inbox or scratching things off our personal To-Do lists.
2. Successful leaders are not just smart, but thoughtful and generous
For his second lesson, Kutcher was clearly thinking about the makeup of his audience when he talked about how to be sexy – which he described as “being really smart. And being thoughtful and being generous”.
In terms of leadership, this is a fundamental key to why people want to follow a leader – they want to know that the person they choose as their leader is smart. But today’s successful leaders don’t simply rely on their own intelligence and perspective to guide their decisions. Rather, these leaders are also thoughtful of others, seeking and valuing the insights and perspectives of those under their care to help shape and inform their decisions.
Such an approach also allows these leaders to be generous with their recognition, gratitude and appreciation for their team members because they know that their collective success is not dependent solely on their smarts, but on the collective wisdom, creativity and experiences of their employees.
While today’s leaders need to be smart, they also need to consistently communicate how they don’t have all the answers, preferring instead to use their wisdom to work with their employees to discover the best course to take.
3. Successful leaders help employees to build a life, instead of just living one
In his last lesson, Kutcher talked about how Steve Jobs once mentioned how many of us are told at a young age how the world works, and then proceed to go on to try and live within this world by getting a job, making a decent living and starting a family.
It’s at this point that Kutcher shares one of his most inspiring messages when he points out how “everything around us that we call life was made up of people that are no smarter than you”.
This last message is particularly important for today’s leaders to take note of in light of study after study showing decreasing levels of employee engagement in today’s workplaces despite their best efforts to try and turn the tide around.
Ironically, these same studies also reveal a common theme of what it takes to create the kind of engagement organizations need to ensure they’re adaptive and relevant in today’s increasingly competitive, fast-paced global market. Namely, that employees are no longer driven simply by the notion of making a decent living – they also need to feel a connection and sense of purpose in what they do.
Irrespective of which worker generation they belong to, today’s employees want to know that what they do and contribute matters beyond their sphere of influence; that it makes a difference to those around them. That’s why getting appreciation from their bosses ranks so high with employees – they want to know that what they do matters. In other words, they no longer want to live in the world that you create. Instead, they want to help build it.
4. Inspiration can come from anywhere if you open yourself up to it
This last lesson is one that I’m adding myself as a reflection of how this piece came about. After seeing and discussing how surprisingly inspirational I found Kutcher’s speech to be – not just for the teenagers in his audience, but for adults as well – I was encouraged by my wife to share these insights with my readers.
Of course, I have to admit that I had some early reservations about it – after all, who’d be interested in reading about leadership lessons gleaned from a speech given by a Hollywood actor for a teen awards show?
But therein lies the final lesson that’s important not just for leaders, but for everyone to take hold of – that if we truly want to be inspired by the everyday encounters we have with those around us, we need to open ourselves to that discovery; to not only to see things in a whole new light, but to commit ourselves to living up to a higher standard.
In a recent column, Steve Denning states that we’re in the midst of a “golden age of management”, one that “seeks to inspire both those who do work and those for whom work is done. It aspires to uplift the human spirit and unleash the creativity latent in every human being while also achieving more disciplined execution than traditional management.”
Key to the mass adoption of this golden age will be our willingness to look past formal roles and functions, to an outward-driven focus not only on how we can contribute the best of ourselves to a shared purpose, but how we can inspire and empower others to become the best version of themselves.