Being The Leader Others Willingly Follow (What Really Makes a Leader)

Leadership is about influence – getting people to do things and setting the stage for people to want to do things.  Of all the books on leadership, all of the qualities people list that define a good leader (there are many), Warren Bennis best summed it up when he said that but one quality determines whether one is a leader or not – they have followers.   Once this criterion is met, leaders are positioned to do their jobs – set direction, build organizational capability, manage stakeholder relationships, lead change and engender the ownership and accountability on the part of others to propel the organization forward.  These are the leaders for who people show up and work their best for, putting in nights and weekends to be sure they deliver the best to their potential.

So what makes us want to follow someone?

1. Credibility: A leader invites followers through credibility.  Credibility is built on expertise, authenticity and personal values.  Credibility engenders respect and trust and triggers a voice in others that says, “I trust their judgment, I really want to stand up and deliver for this person”.

a. Expertise is the entry ticket to leadership.  Senior leaders have deep expertise in one or more core areas of the business and a proven track record of achieving results.  Younger leaders also bring expertise to the table, but what they lack in career experience they bring in consistency for stand-out performance and strong basic skills in strategic thinking, driving results, people skills, decision-making or creativity.  If you’re a young potential leader, pave your way forward through the best you have to offer and sharpen that saw.  If you’re mid-to-late career leader, keep learning and keep that saw sharp as a razor to stay relevant amidst a sea of change.

b. Authenticity is about being real, being consistent.  Through authenticity a leader models desired focus, values, behaviors and shapes culture.  Authenticity comes through having put in the reflection time to know oneself and learn from experiences.

The fastest way to lose followers is to be inauthentic, inconsistent, pretentious, over-political or ego-driven.  People see right through it.  As someone in a leadership role, one might hold the reigns of formal authority but, lacking authenticity, people will only do (just shy of getting fired) what they want to do.  Leading change of any kind would be impossible.  Authenticity creates a field of respect, admiration and commitment and is realized through consistent messaging and behavior.  If a leader talks empowerment, they have to empower others.  If they talk innovation, they have to build the capability, structures & support to engender innovation.  When authentic leaders don’t know the answers, they’re honest about it – and invite other’s thinking.  When they receive important feedback, they use it to visibly improve.  When they engage others, people know there’s honest interest in their contributions.

Lesson From the Field

Consulting on a merger integration to launch a new business, I asked the Corporate Sr. VP who oversaw this P&L to open a planning session with the new leadership team who would then move into developing their strategy/roadmap.  His presentation was powerful.  He laid out the business case, challenges, expectations and corporate support in place for the team.  He answered questions.  At one point he held up his blackberry and laptop and said that, considering the importance of people’s new positions and the critical nature of real-time decisions, people are to always have these items with them – (vacations, nights, weekends).  People got it – they understood – and they knew this reality came with their new roles.  They appreciated the VP’s honesty.  He earned credibility by stating a truth others may have been hesitant to express.  But then later in his talk, he stressed the importance of maintaining work-life balance.  People just looked at each other.  His message was inconsistent, and it didn’t feel real.  Everyone in the room saw and felt it.  Whether this VP was expressing something he really felt was an important value to express but had a hard time with the paradox, or felt he had a responsibility to say but knew wasn’t true in the culture, the effect was the same.   The energy of the conversation shifted.  He lost a lot of ground because his words weren’t experienced as authentic.  Team members were still highly-committed to their role and driving success for the business – it was an important step up for everyone.  But this leader compromised his own credibility with the team that, at the least, presented a significant cost in lost opportunity.

c. Values are defined as, “what’s important” and are transmitted through words and actions.  Values shape the culture of an organization though influencing the assumptions and beliefs people hold.  Business values shape the business focus.  Ethics values define character.  Social values define relationships.  The ability to impart values and being authentic are intrinsically tied.  To engender follow-ship, leaders have to be clear about the values they hold and are intentional in the ways they model these to their people.  They ‘walk the walk’.

Lesson from the Field

Consulting on a corporate restructuring with a $25M/year family business with a complex governing structure necessitated diplomacy and negotiations among multiple powerful stakeholder groups.   We worked in close partnership with the CEO who was the glue holding everything together.  His loyalty to the organization ran deep; his diplomacy skills were exceptional and his personal values were based on sincere care for people.  This leader valued everyone’s contributions and everyone knew it.  One evening after a long day together he drove me back to my hotel so we could prepare for the next day.  Standing in front of the hotel a young man approached us and asked for $ so he and his wife who were traveling could get some food.  My client looked at him and said he wouldn’t give him cash, but he would offer him a room at the hotel for the night and dinner.  I was surprised – this wasn’t a ploy or a bluff – he was quite serious.  He sincerely cared that these people had a place for the night and food in their bellies.  I was truly inspired by his integrity and act of charity.  At that point many things fell into place for me understanding who this leader was as a person and how he engendered such loyalty among his managers and employees by truly ‘walking the walk’.

2. Seeing the Big Picture, Holding the Vision sets a sound course for the business and offers people confidence that they’re heading towards a positive future.  People know they’re working for something greater than themselves and that it’s attainable.  Little is more inspiring than knowing our work has meaning in a bigger scheme of things.  The most effective leaders I’ve worked with are able to maintain this ‘view from the balcony’ and also invite others to climb the stairs.  In this way, leaders create a meaningful context for the work people are being asked to do.

The flip side of holding the big picture can result in a tendency to be impatient with perceptions from those in the trenches.  Some leaders will tend to dismiss these points-of-view (and the people who carry these), cutting off either vital opportunities to learn about their organization or customers or leverage for employee learning or commitment.   The most effective leaders I’ve seen are able to maintain their own big picture view and help to elevate other’s perceptions — while also honoring what their people have to offer, no matter how far in the weeds they live day-to-day.

3. Respect, Dignity and High Expectations is the tripod which maintains commitment and high-performance.  High expectations coupled with respect for people’s dignity inspires follow-ship.  Many leaders instead use fear, which can be motivating to a certain point, but only to a point and is far less effective or sustainable as respect, dignity and high expectations.  (Adventure programs work under the premise of ‘eustress’,  defined as just enough stress to make us be our best, but not carried over the line to become a negative dynamic).

Lessons From the Field

Working with newly-formed US regional leadership team of a large corporation, we came together to craft a strategy for the region.  The retreat was progressing well until a mid-day break when the VP, in private conversation with me, said loud enough for everyone to hear (intentionally so), “my guess is half these guys won’t be here in six months”.  This leader thought fear as the great motivator.  His affect was far from leadership.  The group responded as any in a state of shock and fear would.  They participated, but very carefully so.  By the end of the retreat we had crafted a strategic plan the group and VP were confident would achieve corporate goals for the region, and this leader’s feedback to the group was that he was somewhat disappointed that people weren’t thinking creatively enough.  He couldn’t see just how demoralizing his earlier words were to the group.  In his attempt to influence, he had violated people’s dignity and disenfranchised the team.

Alternately, in work with a UN Mission, we held a series of whole-system planning events, bringing together all of the Sections with Section Heads and Mission leadership.  The Ambassador and Deputy Ambassador participated in all of the sessions, rolled up their sleeves and engaged fully.  They recognized the opportunity to engage and learn from everyone throughout the rank and file, offer vision and set clear expectations across the organization.  They also realized the cultural shifts they were looking to effect demanded this level of leadership engagement.  The scale and complexity of issues these leaders were called upon to manage in their day-to-day reality were light years beyond those of people in the trenches – but these leaders listened with intention, curiosity and interest, and with high regard for people’s dignity.  Perspectives and concerns weren’t dismissed as too small to warrant attention, nor did anyone feel patronized.   The follow-ship these leaders were able to engender was inspiring to witness and generated results on the part of the whole group which helped to substantially improve the organization’s capability and performance.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 2nd, 2012 at 2:20 pm and is filed under Leadership. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Being The Leader Others Willingly Follow (What Really Makes a Leader)”

  1. […] it’s even more important to recognize when to talk, to whom, about what, and how. I have followers that I can’t let […]