Leadership is not about mechanics.
Sure, what you do is important. How you do what you do is even more important.
Receiving timely and accurate data is necessary to make the right decisions at the right time. To move the needle. Maybe to save the day.
But good leadership can’t be reduced to spreadsheets and metrics, no matter how insightful — or colorful 😉 — they are.
The essence of good leadership involves human interactions.
Yeah, people. Human beings, with all the wonderful personal imperfections, insecurities and idiosyncrasies they bring to work every day.
Me. You. All of us.
You will have moments of truth when the spotlight is infinitely brighter — and hotter; when you can make the mistake of forgetting that your most important role is leading other people.
Do it correctly and you will create trust. Loyalty. Followership.
Do it incorrectly and you’ll witness disengagement. Cynicism. Employees punching a clock. Or deciding to go look for a better boss. 😲
When the test comes, what is the first thought that comes to your mind?
What are the first words that come out of your mouth?
Your leadership gets tested…and your brand gets defined in moments.
In mere seconds.
So be prepared.
Re-order Your Checklist
When you look at the events of the last ten years, you recognize that natural disasters are a part of life. Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Wildfires.
And the once-in-a-lifetime black swan events? Yeah, they seem to take place every three or four years. The dot com bubble. SARS. 9/11 terrorist attacks. The financial meltdown in 2008. BREXIT. The COVID pandemic.
You can use those checklists and efficiently prepare for a natural disaster…and possibly miss out on one of the most important priorities for you as a leader: the health and safety of your employees.
Don’t leave your employees as the last item on your checklist. They sense it. No one wants to feel like an afterthought.
I was on the board of directors of a church when a severe hurricane threatened South Florida. We met and made sure that the church staff had a plan to protect the building and notify the congregation about any disruption to our service schedule.
Then we went home.
The hurricane caused some damage in our community but wasn’t as severe as it might have been. When we met at the church the next day, we were relieved the building incurred no damage. Our pastor was there and he was fine. All was good.
And then someone asked, “What about the staff?”
Crickets. Lots of squirming and staring at the floor.
We remembered the building. We protected the computers. We worked the checklist.
But we forgot about the people.
We modified our checklist for the next hurricane season. The health and safety of the staff become the top priority. And we made sure they knew it.
Dealing With Divas and Terrorists
Sometimes your leadership gets tested by a high-drama, high-maintenance customer. Sometimes you get challenged by an internal terrorist employee. In both cases, they make life miserable for your good employees. They flaunt the rules. They’re rude and demanding.
If they’re inconsequential to your business, your decisions are easy. You fire the customer. You fire the employee.
Unfortunately, it’s usually the big customer or the employee who brings in a ton of business to your company.
Losing either one would impact your P&L. Lost revenue. Lost profit.
So you tolerate the behavior. And you hope they’ll change.
Has that ever worked out?
Nah, didn’t think so.
I started my working career as a branch manager at a bank. We were incentivized to get deposits and I went into overdrive. Presentations to the condo commandos. Cold-calling local businesses. Hustling daily.
We opened an operating account for the largest restaurant in the area. Big cash balances. I might hit my monthly goal with this one account. 😎
Within weeks, they started overdrawing their account.
The manager explained that it was a bookkeeper issue and that it wouldn’t happen again.
But it did.
When we returned the checks for insufficient funds, the manager came in and melted down in front of my staff. I wasn’t in the office, and when I heard about it, I thought my employees were overreacting.
The restaurant manager came in to see me and I apologized. I told him I’d trust him to clean up his act and we’d work with him going forward.
After I escorted him out the door with a handshake and a pat on the back, I turned to see the expressions on the faces of my staff.
Anger. Betrayal. Disgust.
I called everyone together to apologize. But not really. I rationalized. I made excuses.
And I failed as their leader.
I demonstrated that I didn’t have their backs. I chose a stranger. A business. Then, when I had the opportunity to admit my mistake, I didn’t own it. I hoped it would go away. Maybe they’d forget about it.
Not a chance.
Within six months, the restaurant manager was replaced. Within a year, the restaurant closed.
I also lost some of my best employees.
And I learned a valuable lesson.
That painful experience I had at age 23 provided me a lens through which to see situations for the rest of my career. From a people perspective. From the proper perspective.
What is most important? Be clear. Be consistent.
Who is most important? Let them know. Constantly. And particularly when the spotlight is bright.
Ask…and Then Shut Up and Listen
In some respects, trust is established over time. Consistently living your values. Consistently doing what you said you would do.
Trust is also established in moments. But in moments of stress, our awareness — unfortunately — sometimes goes into hiding.
The key to self-awareness is understanding how you are being experienced by others.
You need feedback from your employees.
- To validate what working for you feels like…on good days and bad.
- To course-correct…if need be.
- To do damage control…before you lose them.
Last week I led a discussion with the senior leadership team at Nozzle Nolen that made me think of my lessons on the church board and as a branch manager.
As part of a trust-building exercise, CEO Mark Carran asked his leadership team to identify the behavior of his that brought the greatest value to the team.
Members took turns offering their responses.
One comment received an immediate and enthusiastic reaction around the table: “Your first concern is always for the person.”
I asked the individual to clarify.
“Whenever Mark hears about a personal challenge for one of us, a family illness, a car accident — even at the onset of the pandemic — his first question is always about the person. How are you? Are you OK? What do you need from me? We know he’ll figure out what is best for the business. We trust that he’ll make the right decision, take the right action, but before he ever goes there, I know he’s got my back.”
Other members agreed and offered personal examples of Mark’s behavior in times of crisis. He quietly took notes as they spoke.
Mark remained quiet and attentive as they shifted to comments about what they believed was his one behavior that most detracted from the team.
He clarified what he heard from them and shared what he planned to do going forward to be a better leader. To be their leader.
During that brief discussion, I witnessed a leader:
Who focused on the people first in a crisis.
Who was vulnerable enough to solicit feedback — in an open forum.
Who listened attentively in order to understand.
Who committed to taking action based on the input of the team.
Play “What If?” and Prepare to Focus
As a leader, you don’t want to wait until you’re in the middle of a crisis, before thinking about how you’ll react.
Consider different scenarios that could impact your business and your employees. Regularly play a lot of “what if?”.
Some examples might be:
- What if interest rates go to 10%?
- What if we go into a deep recession?
- What if we get into a trade war that shuts off our current supply chain?
- What if a black swan event hits the US next year / next month / next week?
- What if I lost my best employee?
- What if our delivery driver kills someone in an accident?
- What if there is an active shooter in our office?
By all means, come up with strategies to minimize the risk, or to protect your company if any of those come to pass.
And then consider each of those from the lens of your people. How will you protect them? What will you say to them? What actions will you take?
Hopefully most of your “what ifs” will never occur.
But if they do… you’ll be prepared.
Your team will be watching.
Make sure you’re looking at each scenario with the proper lens.
Like Mark Carran, focus first on the person.
Then take action.
You’ll find your team will be with you.
Because they’ve got a boss who values them. One who is worth following.
Followers who tell the truth, and leaders who listen to it, are an unbeatable combination. — Warren G. Bennis