What No One Ever Told You About Being a Leader

By Cathy McCullough

dateWed, Sep 14, 2016 @ 09:00 AM

There’s a lot to learn about being a strong and effective leader, and the journey toward this end can be an Leadershiparduous one. Part of the difficulty is that at some point in time, you suddenly were promoted into a leadership position—with little to no training on what constitutes effective leadership.

To sum up what I’ve heard from leaders of organizations of all sizes and shapes, here are a few things about leadership that no one ever told you.

Leadership is a relationship business. Effective leadership is all about building and retaining relationships with your people. If people don’t somehow know you, then they’re working for a total stranger. People are not “tasks” or “robots.” They’re human beings with gifts, challenges, strengths, weaknesses, etc. Building deeper relationships with your people should be any leader’s top priority, which means time should be blocked off on your calendar to connect and engage with your people. It is a very intentional effort. 

Leadership is about connection and engagement. It isn’t solely about “the job” that needs to get done…or new technology or state-of-the-art equipment. All of these are tools, and the tools are only as good as the people behind them. So, we’re back to people. Share expectations with your people; use tools such as a Job Scorecard to connect their work with specific desired outcomes; celebrate successes; learn from failures.

Truly great leadership is an art form. As such, it’s something to be mastered over time. You don’t suddenly become a leader and know how to be a good one. It’s a mixed bag of being direct when needed (vs. being a bully), of building consensus around what’s important (vs. simply telling people what to do), of responding in a thoughtful and mindful way (vs. always reacting).

Leadership takes up space on your calendar. Being an effective leader requires that at least 80% or more of your time is working with people. You’ve heard the saying, “It’s lonely at the top.” Well, whose fault is that?

Leadership is not ‘management.’ Most leaders come from being managers. But no one ever tells us that there’s a difference between the two. There’s a shift between being a manager and being a leader. Both are needed—absolutely! Companies must have both in order to do what needs to be done effectively and efficiently. Also, no one has the luxury of being only a leader or only manager. All of us have to do both. It’s the focus that matters. For instance:

  • Leaders lead people. Managers manage daily tasks to be done.
  • Leaders focus on creating value and effectiveness. Managers focus on seeing that the work gets done and on creating efficiency.
  • Leaders focus on the overall strategic intent of the company or the department. Managers focus on internal policies and procedures.
  • Leaders ask questions. Managers give direction.
  • Leaders focus on a longer-term perspective. Managers focus on the shorter-term.
  • Leaders focus on doing the right thing. Managers focus on doing things right. 

Leadership is about communication. This is so easily overlooked. In the daily rush to get everything done, we turn to brief explanations and call these efforts effective. We become perplexed when someone does something that we really didn’t need him/her to do. Leadership requires you to s-l-o-w…d-o-w-n a bit when it’s important to do so. And talking to your people to explain (via a visual, such as your Rhythm Dashboard, which is always a nice touch) what the company’s Annual Plan is, and what led to that plan, and then to discuss what role they can play in accomplishing that plan, is paramount to strong leadership. Being a resource to your people as they begin doing the work is paramount.

All in all, leadership is about people. This is the one that’s the most surprising of all. It’s embodied in all those leadership surprises mentioned here, but any list like this has to say it out loud: Leadership is not about tasks; it’s about people. It’s about building an environment in which every single person can do what s/he does best every single day. It’s about building avenues for contribution, for collaboration. It’s about building internal networks for learning and feedback loops that capture (and apply) that learning. It’s about creating an inspirational environment that captures, and speaks to, the human spirit. Many of us simply don’t know that version of ourselves, much less understand the business relevance of such concepts. 

What’s most interesting, though, is that the business impact of your leadership and the ensuing bottom-line business results lies within the broad strokes of what no one ever told you about being a leader.

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Cathy McCullough


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