This has been a long time in the making. I’ve thought about writing on this subject for years and finally decided it’s time. Yes, while you can read The Art of Strategic Leadership by Steven J. Stowell Ph.D and Stephanie S. Mead, MBA, Good to Great by Jim Collins, The 5 Levels of Leadership by John C. Maxwell or the thousands of other books on leadership, these insights are 25 years in the making and represent both feats and failures along this journey that I honestly hope can be of value to you.
Your time is precious. As Jonathan Edwards wrote, “time is very precious because when it is past, it cannot be recovered.” So, with this in mind, I’m going to give you the key takeaways and let you decide how much of your time you want to give to delving deeper.
The Key Insights — Looking back on 25 years.
- “It should be bottom up, not top down”
- Never underestimate the power of empathy
- Give more than you get
- Sweat the details — despite what others say and celebrate the little things
- If you don’t want to do it, why would someone else?
- Simply listen
Let’s begin with “it should be bottom up, not top down.” I’ve had the privilege of working under a number of great leaders in my career. These individuals were “leaders” in their own right because they understood the power of a bottom up approach. There’s a curious sensibility in understanding the simplicity of this statement. Unfortunately, as businesses “mature,” there’s a false sense of empowerment in senior leaders that their vision and their personal capabilities represent the most effective approach to organizational success. Unfortunately, as the pace of change continues to accelerate — yes, you can read the musings of pundits that say the pace isn’t increasing…, the ability to use a top down method of leadership becomes ever more constraining. So, how do I define “bottom up?” Quite simply, it’s “of the people.” If I’ve learned anything over the past 25 years, it’s the people that do the work every day that understand the products and services — they represent the current opportunities and future successes of the business. So, let’s dig in. Bottom up entails:
- Teaching what you know — not just the basics, but the core insights and skills necessary to excel. The phrase “Knowledge is Power” dates back to Sir Francis Bacon in 1597. The truth is, most leaders relish the knowledge / insights they’ve acquired over time and use it to their advantage, rather than viewing the pace of transfer of knowledge as a litmus test for validating the value of the exchange.
- Helping to solve challenges vs. critiquing solutions. The reality is, individuals in senior leadership roles have a tendency to manage with a downward velocity. Whether strategies, timelines, investments, resources, etc. are properly allocated, the recipient of the work is typically “on the line” without any recognition of the constraints and issues presented by those doling out the work. What I’ve learned — to make this personal, is rolling up your sleeves and helping to do the work, teaching / guiding, and above all else, listening, makes for a strong leader.
When you ask individuals to rate leaders, one consistent theme I’ve seen, which is unfortunate, is people who do the work of the business every day rate those who work from the bottom up, very highly. Interestingly, peer leaders who manage top down / hierarchically, typically don’t rate these peers highly because they view their roles through what is, for all intent and purpose, a caste system — once you’ve earned your way up, you don’t participate; rather, you “manage” what others will deliver and accomplish. If there’s one simple takeaway — remember the leaders that you admired most and think about this attribute. There’s a high likelihood that they were “servant leaders.”
The concept of never underestimate the power of empathy is a powerful one. This translates to a number of key takeways. Recognizing indifference, or antipathy toward others is unfortunately rampant within the four walls of many organizations. The reality is simple — put yourself in the shoes of others and ask yourself, 1.) Is this how I want to be treated? 2.) How would I feel if…? 3.) Could I do my best work under these circumstances? 4.) Does this build walls or tear them down? 5.)Did I intimidate or empower?
Unfortunately, empathy is one of the least demonstrated characteristics of “leaders.” Take a moment to think about this. Outside of work, in your personal life, would you act or even endorse the behaviors that you see or maybe even exhibit at work? If so, then possibly, you’re on the right track, or candidly, you’re as lost as a ball in high weeds — as a friend often says.
Let’s move on to give more than you get. Have you ever encountered someone in a leadership role that truly was a “servant leader?” If you have, the attribute of giving more than getting is typically pronounced. These are individuals that understand the value of giving of their time, their insights, and their emotional support. These are people that recognize that their purpose for giving isn’t to get, but rather to build up others in the hope that they will succeed and that they’ll learn from what they’ve experienced. It’s interesting, all these years later, that I now have the privilege of seeing how others have grown in their leadership skills. My observation is that those who learned / mentored under leaders that didn’t adhere to the philosophy of giving more than they got may have succeeded in their career but are also the one’s that exist on an island, easily prey to the circumstances around them with little support and willingness to “take one for the team” on their behalf. The simple truth is — give more than you get in business today, and you’ll understand why this principle is so critical to your success as a leader.
If you’ve read this far, let’s delve into an issue that’s a fundamental differentiator for great leaders — Sweat the details — despite what others say and celebrate the little things. You’ll often hear phrases like “don’t sweat the small stuff” or “focus on the big picture.” The reality is, detail matters. Project Managers, those great PMP certified individuals, are the “owners” of the schedule; they know what’s next and they’re very good at keeping everyone on track while adhering to the standards of 1). On time, 2.) On budget, 3.) On quality and 4.) On strategy. They can do this because they have to sweat the details. I once sat in a room where a client asked — “Is that a fact or an opinion?” The reality is the response provided was so incredibly detailed, I had to laugh.
As a leader, your job is to know the details and to know them incredibly well. At a certain point in an individual’s careers, there’s a loss of understanding of this principle and the result is “big picture” vision without any comprehension of how to get there or what to do to help other’s achieve success. Great leaders focus on the details and also know how to convey them in a way that’s empowering others to build from / on. Most importantly, they are focused on demonstrating that they care about the work and that they’re engaged and understand what their colleagues are facing.
Along with sweat the details comes a simple philosophy — celebrate the little things. When I was in my early career and quickly elevated to a very senior leadership role, I made it a point to do two things that turned out to be incredibly simple, yet highly impactful. First, I got to know people. When I say I got to know them, I mean — I really got to know them — their personal life, what mattered to them, their career goals, etc. A lot of my colleagues were young — in many instances, a few years out of college, debt laden, early career salaries — most of us can remember what that was like, and hard working. So, what did I do with this knowledge? I learned that a sign that we were helping people to succeed through their careers was when they bought a new car. It didn’t have to be brand new — in most instances it wasn’t. It was just an upgrade from the car that didn’t start in the parking lot or that wasn’t practical for the 30 mile drive each way to the office. With this in mind, HR would ensure we had a cake ready, and we would celebrate their car. Yes, it was a big party each time a colleague got a car, and it made them feel like they had achieved a Herculean accomplishment.
The second thing that we elected to do as a leadership team was to have overprinted on our company paystubs by ADP the phrase “Courtesy of our clients.” Interestingly, this came about as a result of an issue within the company. As a digital agency, our compensation was in the form of fee for service. So, when you have colleagues and entire departments that aren’t good at submitting their time, it’s difficult to bill, as you can imagine. A simple, yet powerful way that ultimately changed behavior was celebrating our clients, their satisfaction with the work delivered by our teams, and ultimately, the fact that they paid the check that was delivered to them. As an agency, we were nothing more than the steward of the money as we built our capabilities through the skills of our colleagues. In the end, this simple gesture; imprinted on paystubs was a celebration of our work and accomplishments.
The next lesson I’ve learned builds on the theme of bottom up, not top down. If you don’t want to do it, why would someone else? This one is critically important. Regardless of the type of business you’re in, as a leader, you’re responsible for ensuring that the work that your teams / colleagues are assigned to is worthy of your own personal effort. If you’re not willing to do it, why should they? After all of these years, a part of my time is spent on client work. I don’t ever want that passion, desire to solve complex challenges, and understanding of what we deliver every day to become an afterthought. I enter my time in the same systems that a colleague does who just landed their first career role with us. I participate in team status meetings, I listed to the insights of colleagues and relish in the opportunity to be part of a team. It’s this day to day understanding of what we do that you should never lose, and it’s this key insight that should help you to ensure the work assigned to colleagues is what you would want to do and honestly, aspire to build a career on if you went back in time.
The last lesson is to simply listen. I’ve struggled with this one over the years. Former colleagues that are reading this would be laughing at this point. I struggled with this for a long time. We’re taught early on that we’re supposed to voice our opinion, be engaged and most of all, actively participate. Unfortunately, for me, this translated to talking way too much, always having an opinion and not developing critical listening skills. I was always thinking about what I was going to say next, rather than intently focusing on what was being said and trying to understand the why behind the insight or recommendation. As I’ve gotten older and hopefully, a bit wiser, I’ve turned that personal failing into a strength. In fact, someone recently said in a meeting, “I have a nickname for you. It’s Damnit Bob.” I looked at the individual with a bit of glare, not knowing what was behind their statement. They then went on to say that I ask a lot of questions and at the moment when they’re in a meeting and ready to move on, I ask another one. My questions are genuine; they’re intended to help everyone understand the what, why and how. In the end, we laughed and I had to smile, knowing that I had made it a long way on my own personal journey — simply listen.
I hope this has been helpful. I’ll close by asking you to do one thing. Add to this list. Comment, critique, do whatever you want, but in the end, help us all to be better leaders.
To learn more, feel free to contact the author — Bob Morris, email@example.com.