In leadership circles, we’re constantly on the lookout for sage advice on what it takes to succeed; of what skills, competencies, and/or strategies leaders should employ and exemplify to succeed in today’s challenging, ever-changing work environment.
That was certainly part of the focus of a recent conversation I had with a group of colleagues where we shared what we saw as some of the critical factors necessary for leaders to succeed in today’s fast-paced, 24/7 interconnected world.
Of course, in such discussions, the one question that inevitably arises is what do we see as the one thing successful leaders do that more of us need to apply in our day-to-day affairs leading our own teams and organizations.
As we went around the table offering our insights to this query, one clear thought came to my mind and it’s one that I’d like to share with you as the one thing I see successful leaders doing.
So what is it? It’s that successful leaders show up.
Think of all the times we sabotage ourselves – where we hold ourselves back because we think we’re not good enough, or that we might come off the wrong way, or worse, that we might fail in front of others.
Think of all those conversations we’ve had with our employees, with our family and our friends where we’re not fully present – our minds wandering to what we need to do next, or conjuring up a reply to an email we just read. Or perhaps allowing ourselves to be distracted by the sound of our smartphones informing us about a new status update or text message that’s been sent our way.
In each of these cases, our focus remains inwards on us – on how the choices, outcomes and decisions we make will impact us, and less on how they will inform, influence, and impact those we lead.
Of course, by now I’m sure regular readers of my blog have probably already figured it out that it’s not enough to just “show up”. And they’re right – because when I say that we need to show up, it’s not just about us being physically present. It’s about us being emotionally and socially present as well.
Therein lies the secret behind why successful leaders are able to draw us towards them and inspire us to not only believe in their vision, but to commit our discretionary effort – our talents, insights, creativity, and experiences – to that vision and help transform it into our shared purpose.
In every encounter, these leaders are intentional in their awareness of not just how we respond to what they say or do, but to being open to learning more about how we see and understand the realities before us.
Now this isn’t a gift or a trait that only a select few of us possess; something that genetics and circumstances bestow on only the lucky few amongst us. On the contrary, each of us has the opportunity and potential to be more present and outward focused in those daily interactions with those around us.
Of course, to do this ourselves requires that we not only become more effective listeners, but more effective communicators in engaging others in those conversations. That our focus is not on coming up with the answers, but on finding the best questions that will help our employees to discover the answers.
And that means that we need to have a sense of humility in recognizing that we don’t have all the answers, nor do we expect to. In so doing, we open the door to accepting failure as a learning experience because those moments reveal the hidden gaps in our collective knowledge and understanding. Of what we need to be focusing on going forward to ensure a successful outcome through our collective efforts.
This also means that we have to be committed to no longer viewing our employees as resources or a means to an end. Instead, we see and treat those under our care as individuals who we strive to build relationships with, so that we might understand what matters to them, and how we can encourage them to commit their talents, creativity, and insights to the shared purpose that drives our organization.
In order to foster and sustain these relationships means we have to move beyond our current narrow scope; that we move beyond the generalities we see being shared over and over on how to handle the different generations in the workplace and instead, make intentional our effort to connect with those we serve at a deep, emotional level.
Granted, many will dismiss this as unrealistic given the increasing demands for our time, attention, and resources. After all, how can we possibly expect to build relationships when the only thing we’re being judged on as leaders is our ability to deliver results?
And yet, the fact is that there are leaders who, in this very same environment, are finding ways to show up and be present to build such relationships with those under their care. One only has to look at some of the thriving organizations today – organizations like Zappos, Southwest Airlines, and The Container Store – for evidence of that.
Even those leaders who remain as timeless case studies of successful leadership – leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and Nelson Mandela – have demonstrated this same approach in how they engaged those under their care despite the various challenges, obstacles or hardships they had to endure to bring their vision to life.
In each case, these leaders recognized the power and importance of connecting deeply with those around them; of making the agenda that defines their leadership not just be about results, but about the people who would help them to make their vision a reality.
They were inclusionary not just in the vision they had for their respective countries, but in how they encouraged and enabled those under their care to insert themselves into the collective story that defined why they do what they do.
These leaders were able to foster and sustain these relationships because they understood the importance of compassion in leadership – of why we not only need to increase our awareness of the realities our employees face, but of making time to understand and connect the hopes and dreams of those under our care with the vision we have for our community or organization.
And we see that sense of compassion being exemplified in today’s successful leaders in how they never waver or hesitate to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. In so doing, they solidify the bonds of community with those they lead, by demonstrating the level of respect they have for those under their care.
In describing the late Nelson Mandela, former US president Bill Clinton said:
Every time Nelson Mandela walks into a room we all feel a little bigger, we all want to stand up, we all want to cheer, because we’d like to be him on our best day.”
That’s the secret in how successful leaders show up in those daily interactions – because their focus is not internalized on what they want to accomplish, but on what they want us to achieve. Through this intentional, outward focus on those around them, they’re able to encourage and enable us to commit ourselves to living up to our potential to be better than we are today.
Given that kind of support, encouragement, and guidance, there’s no limit to what we can dream and accomplish under their leadership.
Ultimately, what all of this reveals is that the secret to successful leadership is not any one thing. Rather, it’s an intricate, myriad web of interconnected behaviours, competencies and actions that leaders need to employ consistently over the course of their leadership. Elements which will not only serve to define their leadership, but which will help to illustrate the raison d’être behind why we do what we do.