A smile came to my face as I scanned through my Facebook photos, looking for the correct photos to add to the collage header for this post. Not all of the moments where able to be captured in the collective of photos, but the general sense created is that I would be nothing without the people around me and I am grateful for all the blessings in my life. The following are some points about leadership I jotted down while walking the streets of Kyiv as I reflected on lessons I have learned as a leader. Under each point are the descriptions which were mostly created while riding from point A to B on crowded subways.
Step into the fight
This point boils down to the instincial fight or flight nature within us. True leaders must be willing to fight whenever a fight is needed to be made. Be it counteracting someone who is attacking the organization’s functionality, reinforcing a teammate’s skills and capacity to get the job done, or simply defending the vision of the group. This is very similar to the idea of trailblazing, and the need to be able to go where the others in your group will not. But, what people do not tell you, is that when you trailblaze, it is less like a walk through a wheat field and more like stepping up to a group of bullies knowing that when the fight starts, you have a people who will come to help defend you and reinforce your decision to stand up against adverse forces that get in the way along your organization’s journey towards fulfilling its mission.
Trust in your skills
If you are a young leader, it will be easy for you to think that you are naturally not capable to lead others around you due to the sheer fact that they are your elders. However, society’s disposition on ‘respect thy elders’ does not mean that you cannot not lead them. In fact, by following this rule and showing the more experienced people on your team the respect they deserve, a leader can create buy-in from those individuals. The skills has built throughout their time is what makes them able to accomplish a goal. Do not only look into your professional portfolio, because the skills 21st century leaders need to encompass many different spheres of intelligence. Trust in the fact that whatever you have done from birth and whatever led you to that position at that time was the correct path, this even includes your family’s origin story. The path you are on as a lead and the skills life has taught you began long before you entered into the world, it is your job to tap into self-awareness and allow yourself to embrace the past by using it in the present and looking to the future.
Don’t make excuses
Leaders should always be looking for solutions to a problem, and not be the problem or be on constant search for the problems. If there is a problem, the team will make you aware of it. When your team comes to you with a problem, make sure that you do not have a defensive mentality, because much of the time our first instinct as humans is to shift the blame onto other people. As a manager and a leader, we must know the driving forces and individual tasks of our team members. In this understanding, you should be aware of who was primarily responsible for the mistake happening, and the answer is shocking to some and one of the biggest hurdle to most. The fault falls to the leader. Even if it was the lack of initiation on the part of a team member, perhaps it was first a lack of empowering that person on your part. The environment created by the leaders actions (or, inactions) is at the core of what drives the collective’s operational capacity. However, a leader should run around the office playing the martyr each time something bad comes along. Instead you are the problem solver, replace the words “that was my fault”, with “how can we change our behavior in the future.” The ‘we’ mindset shift blame towards you in a subtle sense and reinforces a collective mentality and the focus on a positive behavior change creates a solution based culture that is capable of accepting negative stimuli.
Bind the twine
When I was a young leader there was a time when I was playing with a small string, I fiddled with the string so much that I had untethered the bonds of about 7 individual strands. I proceeded to tear these strands in half, however, I was unable to tear this string in two when they were woven together. Much like a team, leaders must constantly be aware of the fact that their team members are much like these small strands. Together, they could withstand my force, but alone they broke under the pressure of separating forces. If your team has unraveled leaders have two choices (1) ravel the elements back together, or (2) separate the strings to create a different grouping. A cool ending to this story is what happened after I tore all strands in half. I rewound them into a strong combined collective. So, just because your team unraveled and tore apart, does not mean it cannot be built back stronger than before. Furthermore, if we get back to the origin of the story, if I had not continuously tempered with the string, it would have never unraveled. Perhaps as leaders, we simply need to let the group do its job and trust the fact that this grouping of different strands will stick together when pressure is applied.
The most valuable tool in a leaders repertoire is the ability to know when to shut up and when to be vocal. While walking with a friend near Kyiv’s Maidan, I heard a piece of wisdom they learned from a book. My friend stated, “we should be conscious of whether not what we have to say can add value to the conversation, if not, do not add anything.” As a leader, our words hold weight and we must be conscious of this; however, we must also be aware of another rule. This rule is to always wait to make a point. I am reminded of another story I heard a couple years ago about how wise native americans separated themselves in council meetings. The wisest would always be the last to make a point on a topic discussion or one of the quietest. They do not need to be ‘know it alls’ and understand the value in active member participation. He or she also always knows to speak up when it is necessary. It is in the awkward and uncomfortable moments when the average human can chose to lead. Like a sculpture molding soft clay, a leader must recognize the assailable moments in which change happens, and have the skills to make it happen.
Be Sincere to Create a Collective Mindset
A heart to heart connection with teammates can help a leader guide their team. This is due to the linkages caused by empathy, and through this connecting force, a leader can build a foundation of trust between teammates. It is not that a leader’s goal should be to be manipulative with people’s emotions, on the contrary, it is allowing yourself to also open up so that the emotions of your team become your own and vice versa. I hear that this approach is deadly for leaders because they need to detach themselves from their team, however, this os where people mistake leadership with management. The ideals of a leader, or of an organization, will never be fulfilled without the interconnectivity of teammates. Even in a team that allows for full autonomy, it is still the leaders job to make each team member move with each other. This means that at the core of what you do and believe (especially in a high autonomous workplace) needs to be congruent to your collective vision. Leaders must be conscious of the notion that negative actors could lead the collective away from the common vision, and in this case there are time when (as previously mentioned) leaders must face this situation head on in order to help the collective move towards their end game. Much like a shepherd guiding his lost sheep, at times the stick is needed to correct behavior. However, I do not in anyway recommend you use a stick to hit your teammates, no matter how much you may want in times of a revolt. Of which, are usually cause by lack of communication and will be dissolved by creating a constructive dialog.
Learn to take Criticism
Fresh off the press, no one is perfect. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but leaders will make a mistake sometime in their lives and you are placed on a pedestal. As a leader your mistakes are amplified to the world and critics come from everywhere. To be completely honest, you do not even have to make a mistake to be ridiculed. Leaders will be helped by remembering these simple sayings, ‘you are not a dollar bill, not everyone will love you’ and ‘even if you are an angel, people will complain about the flapping of your wings.’ Do not mistake criticism for positive feedback. There are many times when people are criticize leaders due to their own personal issues which have nothing to do with you. However, perhaps a criticizer may be correct about an internal behavior change which must take place in order for you to grow. We must learn to separate time to think deeply about the critical feedback we receive, because of you are like most leaders, those are the points which stick in our mind the most. However, we have the power to reflect on these points. In which, we can accept the criticism as valid and make steps which will change our behavior, or conclude that these points are nonsense and explain why they are not valid which will help you defend yourself in the future and let go of this criticism.
Empower your Teammates
A basic skill of any leader is the ability to let loose of the power given by their positional or referent power, and share it with people around them. A selfish leader will never be a great leader, he or she may be an effective lead, but you will never reach your full capacity if you do not share the burden of accomplishing a goal. It is easy for leaders to horde the tasks because we have the confidence that we can get the job done. However, leadership is not about us, it is about the team and how to make the members of the team work in accord around a common goal. Within this mandate, leaders must also understand that this means sharing tasks and trusting the fact that these people can accomplish the tasks. The amount of autonomy a leader can give those in their teams should depend primarily on the faith a leader has on their teammates ability to accomplish the task and the leaders understanding of the needs of their team members.
A leadership lesson I learned through feedback from one of our team members, the need to follow up on all activities. There was a moment when I was responsible for guiding about 60 Peace Corps Ukraine Development volunteers throughout the change in our strategic plan and developing a team to train 35 incoming PCVs on the strategic plan and technical skills they need. Throughout this process, one of my teammates constantly sending me email, asking me how something ended up or where we are on this point. This became a theme over a 6 month period, and each 2-4 weeks she would send a message. I finally got it after 6 months, the need to follow up, monitor, and evaluate is a key point to helping the team move forward. The great piece of the Peace Corps is that on our team most people had over 10 years of experience more than me in a corporate world, and this lesson came to me from a teammate who has about 20 years more experience in project management than I, bringing me to the strange journey were someone within my team actually mentoring and teaching me. This brings us to the next point, leaders must always search advice, knowledge, and mentors.
Mentors, coaches and teachers are the doorway to growth. Even if you do not consider yourself a leader, the people you allow to shape your reality and provide feedback to your actions will ultimately make your tribe better. And, this means the leader understanding that they will not always have the answers or will not always make the right moves. These people should be those who you want your life to be or who has skills you wish you had. A leader must also be aware of exactly what they want from these people and be transparent about your goals. Mentors and coaches time is valuable, they are helping you out of the kindness of their hearts. Be aware that if you waste their time, they will stop investing time with you. However, one of the hardest things a leader will do is also one of the greatest aspects of being a leader, we must be able to ask people for help. In fact, when you ask for help, it complements those to which you are asking because it tells them that you value their advice.