My Top 5 Leadership Lessons
Prior to beginning my executive and leadership coaching practice a decade ago, I held leadership positions in college administration, health care marketing, and Fortune 500 management. As a result, I was exposed to a wide array of leadership lessons. Here’s the short list that comes specifically from my stint with the Fortune 500 manufacturing company. For me, these particular lessons have stood the test of time because they build on a commitment to be an authentic leader (the only type of leader I truly trust). See what resonates for you!
1. Know your purpose.
Intentionality is critical in just about everything a leader says or does. No one is perfect, of course, and even the best leaders can get triggered into reacting in ways that impede, rather than encourage, progress. Time and time again experience has taught me that spending a few extra moments up front thinking through the most effective way to approach a situation can save you precious time in the end. Why waste your efforts fixing problems that would have been avoided if you had just hit the “pause button”?
Early in my career I was the project manager for several large cross-functional initiatives. The exposure I received in that role landed me a reputation as a talented group facilitator. When internal “clients” sought my facilitation services, I first asked them to identify their expected outcome. Most did not have a clear picture of that until the question was posed. Ultimately around 50% realized the methodology wouldn’t actually help them achieve the intended result. In fact, it would likely either distract from it or slow them. The time that wasn’t wasted up front was used much more effectively once the right strategy was identified.
2. Respect and celebrate that everyone doesn’t think the way you do.
If I’ve learned one thing in my years guiding others on how to unleash their leadership potential it’s that people see the world differently. I have not yet met two individuals who have the exact same way of making sense of their work experiences. In my mind, that’s what makes everyone truly unique and I think it gives us a reason to celebrate.
Authentic leaders don’t know what they don’t know and they admit it. This trait grounds them in their authenticity. In order to consider what otherwise might be missed, you need followers who will challenge your thinking. If everyone were like you, how much would you actually be needed? So always err on the side of putting in the extra effort and patience it takes to truly understand the thinking behind what others say and do.
I remember vividly when I was seduced into thinking I always had to please my boss. He had asked me to be sure we displayed the prototype of a new sales concept at a national sales meeting. My boss was hoping to generate a lot of excitement. One of my direct reports tried to warn me that it was a pre-mature move; he was convinced that the venue wasn’t conducive to the sales message we wanted to promote. I didn’t try to uncover his real objections in any detail. And in the end, he was right. The sales force didn’t pay attention to the exhibit and there was no discernible excitement; they used it as a place to rest their beers and hors d’oeuvres!
3. Embrace complexity and ambiguity.
As a leader at a Fortune 500 company, I observed employees breathe a huge sigh of relief whenever major organizational changes were announced. It was as if they imagined it finally was “over” so to speak. I used to advise those who sought me out to be a bit more realistic; it was likely that another round of changes would come sooner than later. And I wasn’t wrong too often. My intention was to help them build resilience.
Senior management faced challenges that got increasingly complicated, not simpler. For their strategies to be effective they needed to be multi-faceted, rather than singular, in breadth and depth. The leaders I’ve come to admire were those who embraced a “no one right answer” attitude. So that complexity and ambiguity are inherent in organizational decision-making. Recognize that fighting this reality is an exercise in futility. Why not face these mostly uncontrollable circumstances with energy, drive, and enthusiasm? The goal – to help people in the organization thrive in the midst of the chaos.
4. Be as compassionate to yourself as you are to others.
Many of my clients have expressed a genuine desire to use their leadership talents to serve others. This, of course, is an important aspect of authentic leadership. But I’ve seen where many also take it to the extreme and deny themselves a fair shake. If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you know that the flight attendant who announces what you should do in an emergency always says something like this: “ In the event the oxygen masks appear, put your mask on first before helping others.“ This holds true for leaders who are facing challenging dilemmas that will have far-reaching implications. These may have considerable impact on short-term metrics or the long-term viability of the organization, on the livelihoods of just a few employees or thousands.
Treat yourself with the same respect and empathy you naturally would want to demonstrate to others. Be sure that first you effectively address and manage your own emotional reactions to stressful situations so that these reactions don’t spill over into your interactions with others. Make it your objective to lighten their load.
I set this same concept into motion when I spearheaded the development of a grief management process associated with about a 35% reduction in the company’s global workforce. After each of nine salaried workforce reductions, I brought together any leaders who had to help people exit the organization on a particular day and helped them work through their own emotional reactions – a complex mixture of deep sadness, unlimited compassion, and even anxiety over the realities that had resulted in such a dramatic upheaval. No one left the room until each leader had processed through these initial feelings. We knew they needed this time to grieve for themselves, because it was so painful to be the messenger that day. And of course, we knew they wanted to be authentically strong for those who remained behind. But we also believed it was important for them to experience first what members of their respective team would go through once it was clear who was no longer on the team.
5. Inspire trust by admitting your vulnerabilities along with your aspirations.
Leaders who show vulnerability generally earn the respect of those they lead. Although early in their careers they may express a desire to be perfect, it becomes difficult to keep up the façade over time. When leaders admit their mistakes or acknowledge that they don’t know the answer, they are giving others permission to do the same without fear of reprisal. Optimism and resilience can coexist with expressions of vulnerability; they are not mutually exclusive.
Striking a balance between sharing what’s worrying you with your vision about what’s possible may not be easy. But it becomes much easier when you are motivated to empower others to play their part in minimizing the downside and optimizing the upside of what’s possible.
I was very fortunate to be mentored by some amazing leaders during my tenure in the organization. One in particular taught me an extremely valuable lesson. She had just been named to the executive team and was under some scrutiny by people who thought, perhaps, that she didn’t have sufficient breadth and depth of experience to navigate an executive leadership role. At her very first “town hall” meeting she addressed the issue up front. Without any hesitation she said: “I don’t know what I don’t know.” I never forgot it. I remember thinking at the time how much courage she had. She turned out to be an extremely effective leader, one who was authentic in everything I observed her doing. I know how much of an impression she made on me because every time I meet with a client who is obsessed with perfection, I tell this story!
For guidance on how to implement these and other leadership lessons for yourself, feel free to contact me. Or, check out the new Next-Gen Leadership Coaching Experience and get your Free Guide to Uncovering Your Leadership Potential!