Whenever I have the opportunity to speak in front of a group of leaders, I often ask them to recall the greatest leaders they’ve ever worked with. I love not only listening to their great stories but seeing how quickly people can understand what great leadership looks like.
By now, I’ve probably heard thousands of responses to this exercise — and yet I’ve never heard anyone tell me only about what a leader said to them. The responses always center around what great leaders did. If a story does include a wise saying or lesson, it’s always backed up by actions and examples. Simply talking about leadership isn’t enough.
Poor leadership’s a drag
Research shows that great leaders can have an extremely powerful effect on an organization in virtually every business outcome that is measurable, including engagement, turnover, and profitability. But unfortunately, poor leadership has an equally negative effect, one that trickles down throughout all levels of an organization.
If we want to reap the benefits of great leaders and minimize the drag of poor leadership, we must model great leadership to our people—not just with our words, but with our actions. I love this quote from General Colin Powell: “The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it’s your personal example they will follow.”
So, here are four ways leaders can ensure they are setting the right example and modeling great leadership.
1. Start with self-leadership
Self-leadership precedes all other types of leadership. It is impossible to lead your teams and organizations with excellence if you are not leading yourself well. From your priorities (both personal and professional) to how you communicate to how you react and respond, your people are learning from what you do. They are making both conscious and subconscious decisions about whether you are a leader worth following every day based on your example. And setting a great example doesn’t happen by accident. You need to be intentional about how you are always growing and developing as a leader. Like it or not, as a leader you are constantly setting the pace and direction when it comes to leadership in your organizations and teams.
2. Be clear about expectations
If you want others to follow your example, it’s easier if they understand what is expected of them, especially around leadership. Be sure to clearly outline and articulate the actions and behaviors that align with great leadership in your culture. When working with clients, I often start by identifying the convictions that define the company and culture the leaders are creating. Then, we create specific behaviors that align with each conviction. If consistently communicated and demonstrated, every team member will understand what it looks like when great leadership is being lived out. This creates a roadmap for them to follow as they are looking for ways to develop their leadership.
3. Ask more questions, give fewer answers
Great leaders are experts at asking questions. Rather than being quick to provide an answer, they use questions to better understand situations and bring out the best in their teammates. This allows them to develop leadership capacity across the organization and bring the best thinking and ideas out of others. One question leaders can never ask enough is, “Is there anything I can do to help you?” Not only will the answers help you serve your team better, it demonstrates that leadership is about serving, not being served.
4. Recognize and reward
This one is key. When you see people in your organization, not just your direct reports, displaying strong leadership skills, be quick to point them out. Be specific about what you saw and the impact it had. Be quick to praise and offer them encouragement that you see the impact they’re having as a leader. Whether it’s a handwritten note, a shout out at a team meeting or quick phone call, always look for ways to affirm the behaviors you’re looking for when your teammates step up and deliver.
Modeling leadership in the modern workplace
Consistently executing these four strategies is easier when you work side-by-side with your teammates on a regular basis. But in today’s workplaces, that’s not always a reality for everyone. Whether it’s the size and scope of your business, the geography you cover or the presence of more remote employees (or often a combination of all three and more), modeling great leadership is a lot harder than it was when everyone worked the same hours on the same floor in the same building.
Having coached many clients through these challenges, here are some strategies they’re using to overcome them.
Maximize face-to-face time
Face-to-face time is a must. I know being dispersed can make this more difficult, but you can’t use that as an excuse. You must invest the time to meet face-to-face, both one-on-one with your direct reports and as a team.
When people spend time together around the same table, sharing the same experiences, something special happens. The energy, body language cues, and connection that come from being face-to-face are necessary for healthy relationships and teams. Find the cadence that’s right for you and your team, but regular face-to-face interactions are a must. And when you bring everyone together, be sure to focus on more than just the business. Connect as people, too. Create opportunities for the team to truly get to know each other and grow closer, and you’ll see trust, collaboration and results improve.
Get creative in how you can leverage technology to stay better connected with your people and teams. Add video to your meetings so you can see each other and pick up on subtle visual cues. Consider using collaboration software so teammates can better share ideas and brainstorm together across time zones and locations. We have clients that are using motorized robots with iPads on them so they can connect better with teammates from across the county. They will remotely check in with teammates this way to see how they’re doing and what they’re working on.
Invest in relationships
Relationships matter. It’s easy to only connect in scheduled meetings when you are part of dispersed teams and to focus on the topic or business during those times. That would be a miss. In more traditional settings, random kitchen and hallway connections serve an important purpose in how people connect — relationships get built and business gets done. Be intentional about how you can remotely create those opportunities.
I had a client a few years ago who would use his daily drive time to call five people he needed to connect with. To them, it often appeared random, but he would print out a list and be intentional about using that time and opportunity to strategically connect and pour into his teammates. Make sure you have a strategy and plan to create that connection with your people.
Why not you?
When I guide groups through the exercise of remembering their greatest leaders, I often end with this question: “Why not you?” Ten years from now, if I get the chance to ask their direct reports to remember the greatest leader they’ve ever worked with, what would stop them from writing their name down? Why not them? Why not you?
You have a unique opportunity and responsibility as a leader to grow and develop your people. Not just between the hours of 9 to 5 but in all areas of their life. The greatest leaders invest time and energy to help their teammates become truly integrated leaders so they can be the best versions of themselves – at work, at home, and in their communities. We know that both good and bad leadership is contagious. So, the question is, “What kind of leader will your people become?” The answer depends on what kind of leadership you are modeling today.