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Lately, you can’t open a magazine or newspaper, let alone peruse the web, without finding articles about leaders who should have done a better job or managers who should have reacted better. From sports managers to politicians, it seems most everyone understands what makes a great leader, and these writers take great pride in dispensing their wisdom. For lack of a better analogy, this advice is similar to a “play-by-play” account of Frankenstein’s monster on the loose: “Now it’s running through the streets” (this problem is going to escalate). “Now the villagers are chasing him with torches and farm tools” (they don’t know what to do about the problem). “Now they’ve set fire to the building” (this is a long-shot, “Hail Mary” solution). This “armchair quarterbacking is useful for those who want to stay current, but it doesn’t really help people improve their leadership skills or allow them to be more effective as managers.
Good advice isn’t telling people what they should do. Good advice is suggesting to others what has worked for you before, and taking the time to share your trials and their results. It’s indicating where the pitfalls may be, but generally leaving the final decision of how to apply your advice to the leader. For me, a few key traits allow a leader to influence me:
Leaders are honest and sincere. Honest leaders give credit where it is due, a sincere recognition that others’ contributions really made the difference. These leaders thank others personally, not just as a fashionable announcement. That personal touch is one of their leadership traits. They show up at the funerals of relatives who were important to their employees. They ask about your family and know how many children you have and something about how your family functions. They see the best in you. A supervisor mentioned once during an annual evaluation that he saw me remove my shoe and pound in a loose nail on a piece of wood trim after some office renovations had been completed. For him that was an illustration of how much I cared about my workplace. Great leaders notice traits in their support staff that are keys to the team’s success. They gain respect by doing so. They are genuine, and genuine in their concern.
While sitting in a room full of people waiting for a meeting to begin, I noticed the CEO was inexplicably late. His assistant finally went to find him, and upon her return she explained that one of the staff members had passed out and the CEO was waiting with the employee until the ambulance arrived. It’s a matter of “doing the right thing” that makes a leader, one who can be followed.
When I think of a leader’s sincerity, I often think about Ronald Reagan. One may not have liked his politics, or his manner of delivery, or even his choices, but no one could argue his love for this country. There was never a doubt in my mind that President Reagan, Governor Reagan, and citizen Reagan wanted what was best for America. That notion has made him a fondly remembered icon. When leaders care—sincerely care—it shines through and people follow them because they believe them.
Leaders are “grown-ups.” Sometimes when procedures in a company get a little loose and employees start to bend the rules, the leader has to be the adult in the room who says, “OK, that’s enough.” Most of us have been in pre- or post-meeting conversations when the gossip begins to swirl and hints and allegations are directed towards a certain person. It is critical that a leader be the one who says, “All right, enough of that. Let’s move on.” It is a sign of character to be above idle chatter and rumors. As “the mature one,” the leader sets “circuit breakers” in the process so that if contingencies occur, the break in the line may cause a momentary setback, but not an overall power failure. Replacing the breaker is much more manageable than rewiring the entire system. The foresight of the leader acknowledges and prepares for this.
Leaders are not rushed. Leaders understand the importance of deadlines but do not become frenzied. They rise above the panic, keeping things on an even keel. When a leader tends to handle pressure without outbursts, accusations, blame, or anger, employees know they are contributing to projects or processes that will be professional and complete. In old cowboy novels, one of the townsfolk usually sidles up to the cool, soft-spoken sheriff and says something like, “Mister, you sure got a lot of sand in you.” And the sheriff just smiles, nods, and gets back on his horse. Leaders should be admired.
Leaders realize they can’t always be liked . Sometimes leaders have to say or do things that are very unpopular. A leader may have to promote an agenda not supported by the staff, or terminate an employee for reasons that may seem unclear. A leader realizes that employees may understand the decision at a later date. And while some staff members may never understand the reasons behind a decision, it isn’t about being popular—it is about serving the job he or she was hired to do. Leaders know it may take a long time for a decision to be acknowledged as being right.
A leader is proactive and when necessary reactive, but with deliberate, reasonable, considered responses. They don’t say, “I don’t know” without adding “I will find out.” They don’t ever say, “I was not informed.” Their job is to be informed. They set the example.
In short, leaders fully accept the responsibility of the job. The focus is not on them, but the job. There may be others who are fully capable of doing the same job—maybe just a different way; maybe even a better way, but leaders understand that for the present this is their job. They do the best they can by employing the best people they can find and producing the best “product” they can. To do this, leaders know the importance of respecting the lives, ideas, and diversity of their staff.
It’s really very simple, isn’t it? Respect for yourself, respect for your staff, respect for those you serve; this is a simple formula for a successful leader.
Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .