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Aligning vision, people
and performance

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Becoming a Leader that People Want to Follow

One of the great debates about leadership centers on whether leaders are born or made. A 2012 study by Biola University in Los Angeles found that “the majority of researchers today believe that the origins of leadership go beyond genes and family to other sources. Work experiences, hardship, opportunity, education, role models, and mentors all go together to craft a leader.”

Notice that the study doesn’t disregard the possibility that certain leadership attributes are in-born, just that the fuller picture of leadership involves external factors. Regardless, if you are a leader – or if you aspire to be one – then you need people to follow you…otherwise, you simply aren’t much of a leader. You may have the authority that comes with a leadership position, but do people want to follow you, or do they merely snap into lockstep behind you for a payday, some benefits, and the thrill of corporate pursuit? The answer to this question could mean the difference between years of satisfaction and success, or years of struggle and scraping by.

The Biola study referenced above also noted that “raw material essential in people in order to lead is not scarce,” and that “the lack of needed leaders is a reflection of neglected development, rather than a dearth of abilities” (italics mine). That means that you can craft leadership skills – whether you were born with them or not – and become a leader that people want to follow. Here are three questions every leader needs to ask themselves about their leadership style, along with recommendations for adopting a style that will attract more followers.


1. Are you a visionary, and are you actively pursuing that vision?

Much has been written about the limitations of money and perks to motivate the modern worker (just Google “motivate employees without money” if you don’t believe me; Google will return nearly five million results). For better or worse, the global workforce has changed; a paycheck every two weeks just isn’t enough to get the best effort out of increasingly detached employees anymore. Workers want to feel like they’re conquering Wall Street, hoisting the Lombardi trophy, and storming Mt. Doom all at once. In short, they want to feel like their work matters; they desire a vision that will compel them to give their best effort to achieve a seemingly insurmountable goal. That’s where vision comes in.

Simply put, vision is a picture of your preferred future. Whether it’s making your first million, winning a championship, or destroying the One Ring and freeing Middle Earth, the picture that accompanies that preferred future is the driving force that motivates dreaming, ideating, planning, hard work, and achievement. Effective leaders know how to harness the power of vision to motivate themselves and others when money and perks are tight, or even non-existent (such is the case in almost all startup businesses).

Leadership guru John Maxwell has said that a leader is someone who “knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way,” and that “people buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” Do you have a vision? Do your coworkers and employees know what it is, and do they believe in it – and in your ability to get them there? Everyone likes to ride the rides, but eventually, even the most laid back people want to get somewhere.


2. Are your boots “on the ground?”

One of the great secrets to effective leadership is effective delegation: knowing whom to trust with which responsibilities and at what times to maximize their talents and your company’s productivity. Effective delegation begins with hiring the right people, training them in your company’s culture (this is more than just dictating policy, it involves imparting your vision to them), and understanding that their fulfillment and buy-in is directly proportional to how well you’ve taught them, and how much you’re willing to trust them.

Delegation is also essential for you as a leader, because it frees you up to focus your time and effort on your natural talents, thus fulfilling you, energizing you, and getting the best out of you. Andy Stanley, author of “The Next Generation Leader”, calls this “only do(ing) what only you can do.” You can’t be – and shouldn’t be – everywhere. “Do what only you can do,” says Stanley, “and delegate the rest.”

Having said that, do your people see you working, both with them and slightly ahead of them? This doesn’t necessarily mean daily status reports or micromanaging; that would be the exact opposite of effective delegation. What it does mean is that sometimes, you have to lead by example – usually when your people need to see you taking the point, not necessarily when you feel like making a leadership statement. If the project is big enough – if it is essential to your company’s vision – you may need to strap on the boots and wade into the mud with your troops. Nothing deflates company morale faster than orders barked from a detached leader to demoralized troops. When necessary, are your boots on the ground?

3. Are you affirming?
So, you’ve promoted your company’s vision and empowered your people; now, what happens when the results start rolling in? If you’ve done your homework – crafted an effective business plan and hand-picked the right people to help you – you shouldn’t face a constant string of setbacks, but problems will arise (they always do). As a leader, how you handle problems says more about you than how you handle success. Squeeze an orange. What comes out? Orange juice. What you are inside will inescapably burst forth when pressure is applied. This blog can’t provide you with inner peace (sorry), but it can provide you with a few helpful hints for dealing with disappointment while maintaining a leadership style people will want to follow.

  • When it comes to criticism or correction, measure twice and cut once. This is business, and results are a top priority, but The Golden Rule always applies, even when – especially when – you are at an emotional or occupational tripping point. If the criticism or correction is severe, take a break – go for a short walk, drive to the corner Starbucks for a coffee – before saying your piece. Remember, your employee didn’t want to make a mistake; they’re likely as frustrated with themselves as you are. And, you have to work with them again tomorrow.
  • Conversely, when it comes to affirming those who excel, lavish praise on those who do well – and don’t wait for a home run. Singles win games, too, and waiting for that grand slam might cause you to miss a smaller, more intimate opportunity to shine the spotlight on someone who doesn’t usually stand out.
  • When possible, personalize your praise. No two people are alike, and the public acknowledgement that fuels one employee’s tank might make another shrivel in fear. Dr. Gary Chapman, speaker and author of “The 5 Love Languages”, breaks appreciation down into five basic categories: words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts, quality time, and physical touch. While hugs and back rubs are discouraged in most workplaces (and for good reason), giving a small token of thanks, doling out verbal “attaboys,” and spending a few moments of “non-work” work time with a standout employee are all effective ways of showing appreciation for a job well done.

Hopefully, as a leader, you have already given much thought to the nature and effectiveness of your leadership, and perhaps even begun to incorporate ideals from other leaders into your makeup. If not, don’t be discouraged! The only things standing in the way of you becoming a leader people want to follow are learning and a little hard work. Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once said that, “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.”

Thanks to Profiles International for contributing this blog, “Becoming a Leader that People Want to Follow”.

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"Pat brings her charm, wit and insight into her advisory relationships and shares the same with her audiences. She's got the systems to back up her concepts."

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