I’ve been thinking about “leadership” for a while and I’m finally ready to share some initial thoughts. Let me state up front that I don’t think that leadership can be separated from management …. or, at least, great leaders must be good managers. Now I don’t have an MBA -and most people who do don’t really learn how to lead people as far as I can tell- or any formal management training. I have, however, read more than my share of management books that have been a source of inspiration and experimentation. What I have is years of experience practicing management in an entrepreneurial context that requires leadership.
Leaders Don’t Motivate People
I think that many leaders think that motivating and inspiring their teams is their most important job. I disagree, my experience tells me that people are inherently motivated if you can create a secure and stable working environment with fair compensation and engaging opportunities. Certainly there will be opportunities to motivate but these are no more frequent than the opportunity to celebrate what has been accomplished.
Here’s a great video on the topic of what motivates and drives workers:
Leaders Are Teachers
In the last couple of years I’ve discovered that the number one reason that my team does not produce the results I am looking for is a lack of direction on my part. In short, I have not been descriptive enough about what my desired outcome was. To be clear, I do not want to have to be prescriptive about how to do something because I want my team to be entrepreneurial and I want to create space for innovation. And on top of that, I want to create space for dialogue about the desired outcome. But to get all that I find that you need to start with a very clear description of the outcome you’re looking for.
I found that working with virtual assistants has been an extreme example of this approach. VA’s are not very entrepreneurial in my opinion, but they are VERY good at following precise direction. If something is unclear they simply stop and wait for feedback. After this happens once or twice you quickly learn to think through all the steps and make sure everything is clear. While this works it adds overhead up front and reduces some of the value of outsourcing. In some cases this is unavoidable, but what’s better is to make the goal VERY clear and to let them determine how to satisfy it. Leadership is about transitioning your team from this first approach to the second.
For those interested in learning more about how to be a great teacher, I’d recommend a book that I’m reading called Teach Like A Champion.
Leaders Set Expectations
Where most people think leaders “motivate” I’d propose that they think of “set expectations” instead. This is where the art of leadership comes in from my perspective. If expectations are too high your team will lose it’s drive. If you set the bar too low they’ll lose respect for your guidance and your business will ultimately suffer. That said, in my experience teams -and people for that matter- are typically capable of doing more than they think they can. One technique for working at the upper-end of the sustainable range is to balance expectations within a larger framework.
Imagine that you’ve got two dinner plates with one about two inches larger than the other. If you take the same amount of food and serve it to someone on each of these plates you’ll find that how “full” they feel when done is dependent to some degree on the size of the plate. Eating all the food on an overflowing small plate makes them feel more “full” than eating all the food on a large plate. Same thing with work. As a leader you have an opportunity to frame your expectations in the context of larger business goals. This not only puts a specific expectation in context, it also invests the worker in a goal that is bigger than themselves. In short, they understand the larger vision and feel connected to it.
Lead by Example
I don’t know if leaders are born with relevant tendencies but I do know that we can learn to be better leaders. At some point leaders chose to “lead” a group of people and from that point onward they’ve started to become more qualified to lead. When you lead you get exposed to different experiences and choices. Assuming that you’re capable of learning from the experiences than you’re on your way to becoming a better leader. Sometimes I think that this is all the distinguishes leaders. So, if you’re thinking about how to take on more leadership this is your invitation to make it happen.