Leading People

The old saying is true: if you claim to be a leader and you turn around and nobody is following you, you’re not a leader. You’re just out for a walk. The impact you have on people can, potentially, be positive and enduring. In the same way that good leaders before you influenced who you are, the people you’re now leading deserve to be enhanced by your leadership.

It sounds simple, but how do we make that happen? By building a trustful and psychologically safe environment where people can unreservedly express and be themselves. As a new leader, you are now part of a long tradition. Leaders who came before you nurtured your growth, enabling you to assume greater responsibility. As they did, you developed the leader inside you. Now you can nurture the development of the people you lead so that they can become leaders. This section is about developing the best leadership for everyone.

Leading People with Trust

Can I trust you? Every person you have the privilege to lead needs to answer that question affirmatively and confidently before giving their best. However, they won’t be able to answer that question instantly. They’ll form their answer based on your actions, the environment you foster, and your treatment of each team member. But they’ll need to be able to settle the question before they fully believe that you are on their side. So, let me pose the question slightly differently: are you trustworthy?

Trust is a complex and very personal subject, impacted by such things as the stability of your upbringing, your perception of your self-worth, your personality disposition and how open or scrutinizing it is, and the degree to which you have suffered through betrayals and violations in your life. All of this impacts you before even taking into consideration the people with whom you’re hoping to build trust or before considering whether you can trust each of them.

All of us seem to exist on a grand continuum that ranges from extreme naiveté to extreme self-protection. Ignorance resides at the far end of either side. Ignorance is being open to the point of trusting those who are bound to take advantage of our trust, but it’s also being untrusting to the point of not being able to develop any relationships. Either end is dangerous either to you or others. Whatever your background, and wherever you reside on the continuum, as a leader, you have to find a way to trust those you’re responsible for leading or you will fail. Trust is elemental to developing the strong interpersonal bonds that underpin healthy relationships between leaders and those they’re leading.

Lead with Safety

If you had to choose between employees who comfortably played it safe and those who consistently acted with courage, who would you rather have reporting to you? The answer should be easy and obvious: you’d rather have courageous employees. In times of change and uncertainty, though, it’s common for people to hunker down and seek safety as they take stock of the shifting terrain. It’s also common during unstable times for fear to direct their behavior. They become distracted, suspicious, and unproductive. Here’s the thing: in today’s work world, change, uncertainty, and instability are constants. Thus, a lot of workers are in a constant state of fear and safety-seeking. Dangerously so.

Your aim should be to inspire courageous behavior among those you are leading. Courage is the antidote to fear and safety-seeking. Courage causes people to show initiative and ‘step up to the plate,’ speak with assertiveness and honesty, and embrace the uncertainties that accompany change. It gives people the backbone to face fierce challenges, stretch toward higher levels of performance, and move outside their safe comfort zone in pursuit of improvement. Where fearful workers are safety-seekers, courageous workers are opportunity-seekers, and your success as a leader will be directly related to your ability to counteract the negative impacts of fear by activating people’s courage.

Nurture Talent in Others

Today’s workplace is littered with jaded leaders who have gotten so subsumed by work that they’ve lost sight of one of the greatest responsibilities and joys that a leader has: nurturing talent. A leader is successful to the extent that they help those they are leading to be successful. Your job is to draw out and develop people’s capabilities so they can have a fulfilling
career. After working with you, each of your direct reports should be somehow enhanced, better off for having been positively impacted by your leadership. Otherwise, you have failed.

One of the best ways to nurture talent is to give people work opportunities that use every bit of their current skills while activating latent skills you saw could be developed. It needs to be an opportunity that they view as an opportunity. Meaning, an assignment that is aligned with their passion, interest, and natural strengths, which you learned about as you got to know them better. The reason for this is they’ll be more into it, fully engaged with the opportunity because they view it as benefitting them and their career. They’ll have more ownership, investment, and energy to take advantage of the opportunity.

Your responsibility is to develop those who trust you and put them in a position to thrive. Leaving others better than you found them gives you the opportunity to leave your mark on others the way leaders have done to you before. The people you lead look to you for guidance and direction.

How do you lead others? Do you build trust and safety, and nurture talent? If not, these elements of leadership will help you become the leader that others want. More importantly, the leader they need.

This post is based on an excerpt from Leadership Two Words at a Time: Simple Truths for Leading Complicated People.

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