Leadership is a controversial subject. Countless books and articles have been dedicated to pinpointing the exact qualities of a great leader—qualities, they say, that will apparently turn you into the next Winston Churchill or Oprah Winfrey.
I’ve always thought that idea was a bit ridiculous. Not every leader is a dynamic, booming personality, and effective leadership doesn’t always require those specific traits, either. When you start your own business, you have leadership thrust upon you, whether you’re ready for it or not, and I’ve seen plenty of people who have never even led a team, let alone a business, completely transform in taking on that responsibility and rise to the occasion.
I’m not narcissistic enough to claim to be a great leader, but I have worked with, under, and beside plenty of talented and driven men and women who I would consider to be powerful leaders. And with all of them I noticed that, regardless of their personal management style or personality, they always did two things: they listened, and then they reacted.
Step One: Listen
An effective leader will never march into their office and start barking orders. Rather, they assess the landscape, inquire about the situation, stay organized and calm, and listen to their team. Good leaders, regardless of where they work or what they do, always know when to defer back to their team. After all, these are the people at the ground level—the ones who deal with smaller issues and problems everyday. Being in a position of power does not elevate you above those you lead. Yes, you make the final call, but you should only do so after listening to your team.
For example, if your sales are slipping you should ask your sales staff what they think is going wrong. Don’t lecture them about working harder. Instead, have a conversation with them, listen to the problems they’ve had, and make a decision based on that information. Listening is considered to be one of the most important skills an executive can have—you can be ambitious, hard working, and well-educated, but if you cannot listen and communicate, you will never make a good leader.
Step Two: React
Your reaction should not precede or butt into the middle of a conversation. Reaction must always follow listening. If you know there is a problem in the office or with the business, and react without knowing the facts informing that problem, you’re flying blind. Entrepreneurs tend to react viscerally to problems—we like to go with our gut. But our gut can lead us astray if we abandon rationality for decisiveness.
Taking time to think and consider your options is not a sign of weakness.
Your team also needs to see you step up to solve the problem after talking to them. Your employees need to know their insight is invaluable to the business; if they don’t, they’ll just stop talking. Make it a priority to keep your employees in the loop. They don’t have to know about every decision you make, but if you’ve spent the last few days talking to your team, you should let them know about your decision. Even if you decide to ‘wait-and-see,’ that’s still a reaction. You just need to ensure the people you listened to know you reacted.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. A completely competent and strong leader in one organization may find that they flounder in another. Leadership is largely about reading the situation around you, and adapting to it. If you listen to your team, and lead from within rather than from in front, adapting your management style to suit their needs will be much easier. When you and your team are able to come together like that, you’ll find that it’s much easier to lead them effectively.
Published: June 5, 2014