How often have you heard the lament: “They don’t make leaders the way they used to?” In every organization, there is an emphasis on building employee skills, concepts like life-long learning, classroom trainings and behavioral interventions, in pursuit of leadership development. Yet, identifying good leaders continues to remain a challenge
To my mind, the problem is not so much in the way we hire, train or organize, but in the way, we interpret the role of a leader.
A leader is responsible for delivering results for their organization. In order to achieve results, they are given the authority to take decisions and, when necessary, discipline or course-correct those that report to them. However, what many organization leaders often forget is that the authority given is commensurate to something more important – accountability. A leader is accountable for the task or objective along with their team. Their role is not limited to providing instructions but, also to deliver equally with their team. The failure to complete a task reflects as much, if not more, on them as the team. This means that they need to build and sustain a team and effectively use their influence across levels to accomplish the task. It is here that the choices they make as a leader matter:
Will the leader be fair or will they have favorites? A good leader’s first trait is fairness. No person likes punishment, disciplinary action or lack of growth. However, they will accept the punishment if they know that a standard course of action will be taken uniformly across the board. Similarly, they will accept the lack of growth when they understand that the process is fair and meritocratic. They may not like it and they may not like you, but they will accept it and in the end they will respect you.
- Will the leader treat subordinates with respect or reserve that respect for those senior to them? You have to give respect to get respect. You cannot be an effective leader if there is a dissonance in your approach towards your manager and your subordinates. It is important to not misconstrue ‘respect’ as ‘politenesses’ or a ‘consensus-driven decision-making’ approach. Respect is a lot more in action than in words—“Do you genuinely listen to your team members? Do you actively seek their opinion? Do you explain the rationale behind your decisions? Do you allocate time to give them honest feedback? Respect goes beyond not losing your cool, smiling and shaking hands—those are important but not enough.
- Will the leader remain close to the front line? The biggest risk we run with multiple levels is them not being close to the front line, not close enough to the associate or the customer. If you do not know what is happening on ground, the chances of you being right are low. So, spend more time on the floor or in the field. The professional competence gained through this will also give you the confidence to encourage disagreements and debates.
- Will the leader encourage debate or avoid conflict? The problem most of us have with debates with our team is that they become personal. General debates on how to serve our customers run the risk of becoming personal conflicts. People get into a debate with the intention to win and the other party has to lose. So, the outcome is “let’s take this offline”, “let’s meet again with more data” and other such ‘excuses’ that just delay the decision-making process. Debates should not be allowed to get personal. If there is a need to make a quick decision, explain to your team and if they don’t agree, ask them to disagree and commit. Don’t slow down for consensus. However, it is important to accept when the team is right and to acknowledge the same. It is critical to remain objective and open-minded when a team member has a different opinion that turns out to be right. This will embolden them to debate the next time and that will help you make better decisions.
- Will the leader instill a higher purpose or focus only on today’s problems? There is no fun in working for this quarter or next imminent milestone alone. The fun is in truly believing that you and your teams impact lives and are changing them for the better. Don’t lose sight of this higher purpose and don’t lose sight of the customer.
The position you are in is a gift—a function of your past performance, education and, to some extent, luck. Being a leader is a choice or more accurately, a series of choices. Choose deliberately to make effective decisions.