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This Is What Real Leaders Do


Over the past few weeks, I’ve had several fascinating discussions with leaders from different organizations and industries about the various challenges they’re grappling with within their workplace.

For some of these leaders, the major issue they face is how to improve employee engagement levels within their division.

For another group, the main challenge they want to address is how to make emotional intelligence a key foundation stone in their leadership within an organization whose senior leaders don’t see or understand the value of such measures.

And for the other remaining group, the primary focus of their efforts is how to lead their team within a gloomy organizational climate where toxic politics seem to drive efforts more than the overarching vision of the organization.

On the surface, what these conversations revealed is the wide range of issues leaders need to contend with in today’s faster-paced, interconnected global environment. On closer inspection, though, what we discover is that at the heart of each of these challenges is an underlying truth that every modern-day leader needs to come to terms with – that as a leader, it’s your job to protect your team so they can do the work they’re meant to do [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

At the core of every successful endeavour there is a leader who understood how to foster conditions that will help them to bring out the best in those they lead. Key to creating those conditions was the efforts these leaders made to shield those under their care from political manipulations and ego-driven initiatives that risked taking the wind out of their collective sails to succeed in spite of what stood before them.

In looking at the actions and behaviours of revered leaders from around the world, we find unmistakable proof of how their focus was not on themselves – on building or strengthening their reputation, power, or prestige.

Rather, these leaders understood that the key to creating a compelling vision or goal that others would want to be a part of requires that we put our focus on how to create a supportive environment; that as leaders, we need to care more about doing right by our employees, than on being right [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

These leaders understood that it’s not enough to demand the best of those you lead unless you’re able to create those conditions where people feel compelled and internally driven to bring their best to the table. That they feel that connection between what they do and what matters to them because we’re paying attention to how the emotional environment we create through our leadership shapes their reality and how they view their contributions and efforts.

Of course, in light of today’s faster-paced work environment, paired with the ever-increasing demands on our time and attention, it’s becoming easier to simply focus on the things we need to get done to make us feel like we’re making progress on achieving our goals.

And yet, to succeed in our leadership, we have to avoid the temptation of simply focusing on those various processes that revolve around us; to resort to using metrics and spreadsheets to validate how we view and understand the nature of our leadership and how well we serve those under our care. Indeed, the question we need to ask about our leadership is are we helping our employees to succeed? [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]

This is why we see a rising interest among leaders to understand how to increase their self-awareness for how they show up in those daily interactions with those they lead. We can’t go into those daily conversations with our employees simply to confirm what we know, to validate our position, or worse, to assert our authority.

Rather, our goal should be to use these interactions to help us understand the everyday realities our employees face. Of what they require from us to be successful and then looking back at our own actions to see if we are in fact creating those necessary conditions. By being mindful of how we show up as leaders, we can remain grounded in the reality of today [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

As I’ve written before, leadership is not meant to be easy, nor should we convince ourselves into thinking it can be. After all, with leadership comes the responsibility to make things better than they are today [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]; that we combine the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of those under our care with the vision of a tomorrow that others not only want to experience, but want to play a part in helping to make our new reality.

That’s why when faced with a senior or executive leadership that fails to appreciate the importance of emotional intelligence in today’s organizations, or if we have to navigate an internal political terrain filled with egos and self-driven agendas, we can’t hide behind those realities from doing what’s necessary to help those we lead to be successful in their collective efforts.

We can’t use the excuse of the rising demands and distractions we face every day to absolve us of our responsibility to protect our team and the core values that help to define why we do what we do.

It’s a fundamental truth of successful leadership that Billy Ray Taylor keenly understood when he took over the role of plant manager for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company’s manufacturing plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

As I wrote in my book, “Leadership Vertigo”, Billy was given the responsibility of seeing if there was any way to transform this under-performing plant into something more viable and sustainable. Under Billy’s leadership, this plant not only increased its product output while reducing operating costs, but he also increased employee engagement levels amongst the plant’s hourly workers. And he did all of this under the span of two years without laying off employees or outsourcing work.

So how did Billy’s leadership foster such a dramatic transformation in such a short period of time? How was he able to not only improve the plant’s effectiveness, but improve employee morale among his hourly workers?

It wasn’t because of his focus on the things he needed to get done; on the challenges and obstacles he had to address to placate those above him. Rather, it was because of his drive to provide his employees with the kind of environment where they knew and felt like they mattered. And he achieved this in some rather surprising and unexpected ways.

For example, Billy cleaned the employee bathrooms himself when he heard complaints about how dirty these facilities were. He also took out his trash and vacuumed his office so that the cleaning crew could put more effort into cleaning the facility’s laboratories.

And when Billy walked through the plant floor, he never hesitated to shake the grease-covered hands of his employees, insisting that it was more important to connect with each of them as individuals than worrying about getting his hands dirty.

In every instance, Billy made no effort to draw attention to his actions, nor did he try to hide it from his plant employees. Instead, he made it clear to his employees that while he was given the mandate to turn this plant’s fortunes around, he also understood that it was his responsibility to protect his employees from conditions that would prevent them from being successful in their collective efforts.

It’s important to note here, too, that Billy didn’t worry about getting buy-in from those above before taking on these initiatives, nor did he concern himself about how to integrate this approach within the larger organizational culture of this global manufacturer. Instead, his focus was solely on what measures he could take to help those under his care to feel successful, to know that what they do matters, and that they were a part of something bigger than themselves.

What’s more, what we can see from these actions Billy took is that it didn’t require a lot of effort or resources. But what it did require is a level of intentionality and commitment on his part to ensure that he was in fact putting his employees first and doing what’s necessary to not only ensure their success, but to promote a sense of connection and purpose in what they do.

Not surprisingly, Billy has since been promoted to overseeing operations in Goodyear’s plants throughout North America so that he can help the other plants to become as successful as the one he lead in Fayetteville.

It’s an outcome that reveals how in making those efforts to protect our team, we can in fact create those ripples wherein which we might transform the larger organizational culture into one that encourages all employees to bring their native talents, creativity, and experiences to the work they do. That through our leadership, we shine a light on how we can help our employees to do their best work [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

In his literary classic “Walden”, Henry David Thoreau wrote:

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. … If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Although Thoreau’s message is directed towards helping us understand the beauty in finding simplicity in our lives, it also reminds us of what is fast becoming the primary responsibility of our leadership in today’s world – of how we can help those we lead to do work that matters by building the foundations of a workplace environment that facilitates a sense of meaning and purpose in what we do.

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This Is What Real Leaders Do
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had several fascinating discussions with leaders from different organizations and industries about the various challenges they’re grappling with within their workplace.

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