Stop Aspiring To Lead And Start Leading By Giving Support

For organizations to succeed, leaders need to learn how to provide better support for their employees. Learn where to begin with this piece.
The following is a guest piece by Inc. columnist and NYU Adjunct Professor Joshua Spodek

People who aspire to lead look upward in a hierarchy to find power and authority they can grab onto to pull themselves up. That’s why they’re still aspiring and not leading. People above them can sense their craving, which they can motivate them with, which makes them followers, not leaders.

Great, effective leaders support people, which means not looking up but looking around at people at all levels. Supporting people attracts them to your team. Support creates loyalty, dedication, and results. People who support become leaders because people want to follow them. They buoy themselves up through effective action, which means getting things done.

Why you don’t know how to support

The challenge to grow your teams, followers, and community is more than knowing you have to support people. Everyone knows what they should do in the abstract. The challenge is knowing how and doing it. Schools don’t teach it. Media don’t show this bread-and-butter but not dramatic part of leadership. What’s effective doesn’t sell movie tickets.

In my book, “Leadership Step by Step“, I treat support as the culmination of the leadership skills that you reach after mastering everything else. I think of it like the serve in tennis. It may be an important part of the game, maybe the most important, but it’s hard, so you don’t learn it first. Learning it requires mastering the basics it’s built on, like ground strokes, to do it effectively.

In particular, I structure Leadership Step by Step in four units:
1. Understanding Yourself
2. Leading Yourself
3. Understanding Others
4. Leading Others

Each unit gives a set of exercises to develop your skills and experience in its domain. Whether you learn leadership from my book or elsewhere, you’ll probably have to work up to learning how to support people.

The first three units tend to involve solo work or preparation for interacting with others. Understanding Yourself covers self-awareness, perception, beliefs, mindfulness, and so on. Leading Yourself covers creating habits, creating beliefs, speaking authentically, getting advice, and so on. You develop and practice the skills in these areas on your own, independently of interactions with others.

Even Understanding Others, which generalizes what you learned about yourself in the first two units you mostly do on your own.

They prepare you for the social challenge of interacting with others, but Leading Others is where leaders shine. Or lose their luster.

Leading Others gives you exercises to develop in you the social and emotional skills to behave and communicate in ways to make others feel comfortable sharing their motivations and emotions with you. Connecting people’s existing motivations and emotions to their work will imbue it with meaning, value, importance, and purpose. Connect it effectively, with sensitivity and confidence, and you will inspire them. Alternatively, trying to layer your emotions and motivations over theirs without sensitivity will provoke resentment.

Still, as a leader, you will have done the preparatory parts of leading others—your personal leadership—before a given leadership interaction. They may take a long time to develop, but you will have done them before working with your team.

Motivating people, even inspiring them, can take minutes. But, no matter how inspired the worker, jobs take the time they take—a week, six months, a year, a decade, whatever.

In that time, inspiration and willpower run out. Life encroaches. Conflicts arise. Resources deplete. And so on. People need support.

A leader who inspires people in minutes may spend thousands of times more time and attention supporting team members.

How to Support

The key to supporting, as in all parts of leadership, is to put the interests of those you lead first. I recommend imagining what support your teammates will need and what you will need from them. You’ll do well to ask them to do the same in the other direction: what they’ll need and what they can provide you.

Then I recommend meeting and agreeing on a plan for your working relationship. If you’ve inspired them, you will find they often ask for support so detailed that if they didn’t ask for it, it would feel like you were micromanaging them. It takes experience to internalize that if you’ve connecting their existing motivations to the task, they won’t be doing it for you, though it may be work you assigned them. They’re doing it for themselves.

Judgment they ask you for gives them quality standards so they know how well to do it. Deadlines pace them. Deliverables to other structure and give them accountability to motivate them.

If you don’t reach this level of closeness and teamwork—I even call it intimacy—you could probably improve your other leadership skills. It’s the leadership equivalent of, if your serve in tennis has problems, you probably didn’t master one of the lower-level skills along the way.

This high-level discussion doesn’t give you the skills of supporting people. It only outlines the practice. I hope it illustrated how important support is, the loyalty, dedication, commitment, quality, and so on that it brings, and the lack of those things when you don’t support your team.

Common specific support needs

I’ll close with a partial list of common needs of teams and team members, in no particular order. Different people and teams have different needs. Your communication skills, self-awareness, sensitivity, experience, etc will guide you to learn your teams’ needs you can support them for.

  • Material resources (money, supplies, food, etc)
  • Protection from others wanting their labor and time—”Air cover”
  • Conflict management
  • Connections to others outside the team
  • Expectation of success
  • Vision
  • Feeling understood on their motivation and passion
  • Vacations
  • Re-inspiration
  • Motivation
  • Standards to meet
  • Recognition for their effort
  • A shoulder to cry on
  • A sense of urgency
  • More time
  • Less time
  • Clarity
  • Silence
  • Solitude
  • Systems (computers, schedules, etc)
  • Advice
  • Space to work
  • Material reward
  • Non-material reward
  • Listening
  • Accountability
  • Privacy
  • A kick in the butt
  • Ownership

If you find the needs relevant to your team and handle them, your team will get to act on their passion. They’ll feel your support and act on it with focus and without distraction. They will thank you for getting them to work so hard.

Joshua Spodek is an Adjunct Professor at NYU, leadership coach and workshop leader for Columbia Business School, columnist for Inc., founder of Spodek Academy, and author of “Leadership Step by Step”. He holds five Ivy League degrees, including a PhD in Astrophysics and an MBA, and has been quoted and profiled by ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. To learn more about Joshua, visit his website at

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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