At the beginning of this year, I wrote a piece where I asked a simple question – will this be the year that we put our employees first? The question was inspired by the findings of a recent study that found that for leaders across the globe, the top challenge they faced was how to engage, retain, and develop employees under their care.
With the year now coming to an end, I thought I’d circle back to this question, and look at what I saw and experienced through my work with various executives, managers, and others in leadership positions to see if we did in fact address this concern facing so many of today’s organizations.
To start things on a good note, I did see leaders this year who clearly understood not only how to engage and motivate their employees, but also how to manage conflict in today’s faster-paced, connected world, how to foster an environment where our employees succeed and thrive, as well as how we can use our leadership to bring out the best in those under our care.
Unfortunately, I also saw leaders who tried to side-step any responsibility for the issues that currently plague their organization, with some even arguing how the problem was the fault of those their organization serves, and not a reflection of their leadership or contributions.
Even worse were those leaders I observed who told their employees of their personal commitment to the shared purpose that drove their collective efforts, only to turn around and abandon that personal commitment because things got ‘too complicated’, or because they were simply too busy to care about the impact their actions had on their leadership and with it, their credibility.
Now to be clear here – these aren’t bad people. But they are bad leaders. These are individuals who either lack the competencies to be an effective leader in today’s workplaces, or they are simply unwilling to take the initiative to truly understand the realities of those under their care. In both cases, there can be little doubt that they failed to put their employees first because they lacked the ability and courage to do so.
Fortunately, this isn’t so much an obstacle, but an opportunity for us to do better and make the changes that are necessary to put those we lead ahead of ourselves. As I wrote earlier this month, the challenge is first opening ourselves up to recognizing that leadership is hard because anything worth doing is going to be an uphill journey to success [Share on Twitter].
To help accentuate this point, I’d like to share a story of a world leader so many of us admire and look up to, Nelson Mandela. Specifically, I’d like to discuss a moment highlighted in the film “Invictus” which tells of how Mandela rallied his nation to support the efforts of their national rugby team, a team that was once regarded by many South Africans as a painful reminder of apartheid.
When this film came out in 2009, it was a source of much interest in the leadership sphere, particularly for the scene where Nelson Mandela invites Francois Pienaar, the South African rugby team captain, to his home for tea and asks Pienaar what was his philosophy of leadership. It’s a fantastic scene which begins with Mandela asking Pienaar a series of thought-provoking questions:
How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do? How do we inspire everyone around us?
The answers and discussions brought forth from these two questions is a wonderful study into the intricacies of leadership. And yet, what’s really worth noting from this scene is something that all-too often gets overlooked – a small, seemingly insignificant gesture which reveals the very heart of the questions above.
Soon after Pienaar arrives for their meeting, one of Mandela’s assistants, Mrs. Brits, enters the room carrying a tea tray. Upon seeing her, Mandela turns his attention to Mrs. Brits and tells her “you are a shining light in my day”. Mandela then goes on to make formal introductions between Mrs. Brits and Pienaar as though he were introducing a member of his cabinet to the rugby team captain.
Although the dialogue from this meeting between Mandela and Pienaar was fictionalized, that small moment between Mandela and his secretary is in fact an accurate reflection of what so many of the people who worked under Mandela experienced under his leadership. For Mandela, it didn’t matter whether you were the head of a nation or the person who brought him tea – everyone deserved his respect and kindness, if not also his undivided attention.
This story reminds us of why leaders like Mandela continue to be honoured and revered by people around the world. Leaders succeed by inspiring others to believe in their potential to be more than they are today [Share on Twitter]. Of seeing the potential for what we can achieve together and how our efforts matter in creating the kind of future we want to be a part of.
The fact that Mandela was a man with his own flaws should also remind us that his leadership was not unique or even rare. Rather, it is something that we can all achieve if we recognize that to succeed, our leadership should not be focused on us, but on those we lead [Share on Twitter].
Of course, that’s not to say that we need to put the needs of our employees ahead of the needs of our organization, or even ourselves. Rather, it means that we make that deliberate effort to better understand what matters to those under our care – what would make them feel like they’re making a difference, that the work they do is meaningful – and then connecting that to the shared purpose that drives the collective efforts of our organization.
By recognizing both the contributions and the individuals behind those efforts, we stand a better chance in remaining grounded in the reality that our leadership is a transitional role. One that we play until such time as someone else is needed to take the reins and guide us forward towards creating that future we all want to live in and be a part of.
At the end of this tea scene from Invictus, Mandela looks over at Pienaar and says “We need inspiration, Francois, because in order to build our nation, we must all exceed our own expectations.”
While some leaders might have missed the opportunity this year to show their employees that they matter to their organization’s success and future prosperity, there were many other leaders who put their employees first and empowered them to succeed and thrive.
With the impending arrival of a new year, let’s not overlook the opportunity to exceed the expectations of those under our care; of what they can count on from our leadership going forward.
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