As a life-long sports fan and former athlete and coach, I'm a firm believer in the old adage "there is no I in team". I've always found that the best teams utilize the talents of all of the players for the good of the whole. Teams that work together and play unselfishly seem to have the best results. Adversity and challenges bring out the best in them as they have developed the mindset of team results before individual glory. They want to win, and they've learned that they can't do it alone. One player doesn't make a great team. So how do great teams learn how to perform at a high level? Usually, it's a combination of strong leadership, effective coaching, and of course, willing and able players.
I've given a lot of thought to what it is that makes a strong and effective leader. Like too many people in the workforce, I've experienced more ineffective leadership than great leadership. The good news is that it's possible to learn the art of leadership. Keep an open mind and take the lessons from every type of leader that you encounter. Take the best of those who do it well, and learn what not to do from those who have challenges, and you'll be on your way to making yourself one of the leaders that others will want to work with and emulate.
One of the best traits I've found in strong leaders is that they are continuous learners. Those who have the impressive title and the nicest office and then stop learning can really hurt their organizations. They mistakenly believe the title and office mean that they know it all, which leads them to mistakenly believe that their organization can't function without them. The very traits that got them to the corner office become their greatest weaknesses as they convince themselves that no one else works harder, or can do the work that they do. Instead of lending a hand to others, they hang on to tasks that should be shared and taught so that others can learn and grow. This type of leader will soon be overshadowed by those who do understand that a title carries the responsibility for not only continuous growth and improvement, but also the development of others.
This past May I had the opportunity to attend a leadership development program that approached the topic in a way that really resonated with me. Ironically, it was all about I, as in Invite, Include, and Inspire. I would also include another I, which is Impact, in any discussion about what is required of the best leaders.
If you are currently in a leadership position, think about how you got there. Chances are, someone saw leadership potential in you and extended an invitation. I hope that you thanked that person for opportunity, and I hope that you have, or will, do the same for someone else. I was fortunate to be offered a seat at the leadership table at a relatively young age, and early in my career. I was in my late 20's and had never attended a board meeting, but my leader at the time saw potential in me and asked me to be a part of her leadership team. She was a tough task-master, and someone who taught me a lot about how not to treat people, but I've never forgotten the gift of that invitation.
Another method of invitation is to remember how your demeanor can invite your people in or drive them somewhere else. As a pretty strong introvert, this is something which I have to be aware of constantly. I've learned that smiling at someone can put them at ease, and greeting them warmly can make all the difference in how we interact. I've finally figured out that an invitation into my office is important, especially to those who approach timidly and try to hide behind my door frame because they find me intimidating. For the record, I'm certain that it has nothing at all to do with what my kids call "the blue-eyed death stare". Also for the record, no one has ever actually died from this. I happen to be....focused and a little too intense sometimes. On the plus side, I'm also aware of how that isn't terribly inviting, so I have to make a conscious effort to lighten up.
Being inviting as a leader goes hand in hand with including. One of the best lessons of my organization's cultural initiative has been the importance of employee engagement and involvement. If people are included in the decision making process, their engagement and enthusiasm will be much greater in the workplace. If you include someone by asking their opinion, they'll feel seen and valued as an individual. Isn't that what we all want? If there is an expectation of inclusion and involvement in the workplace, those who want to be engaged will do so enthusiastically, and the achievement bar will rise. Happy people have great ideas and will do great work. "Tell me what you think" and "I'd like your opinion" are powerful statements that make people feel included.
What about inspiration? The impact of inspiration, either personally or professionally, can be enormous. If there is a suggestion that I would make to any individual looking to change they way they think or work, it is to find what inspires you, or someone who inspires you. Think about why and how you find that something or someone to be an inspiration, and find a way to add that energy so that it becomes part of who you are and what you do, every day, if you can.
Attempting to inspire others, as a leader, is a great responsibility. Leaders need to understand and impart vision in order to inspire. Leaders must think about the future and what could be, and not be satisfied with what is. If, as a leader, you have the ability to get others to understand and share your vision, and then to see where they might possibly fit into it, you're well on your way to inspiring. What I find fascinating about inspiration is that it doesn't require the cheer-leading that you might think, but it absolutely does require authenticity. I've struggled with praise and reward as a leader, because I've always been highly self-motivated and don't much care for recognition. I prefer to go about my work and achieve quietly, with the knowledge that I've done well being its own reward. Most people aren't built this way. Confidence has to be built and reinforced in most individuals in the workforce. I don't believe in telling people that the work they're doing is great if it's not, but when employees do well, they should be acknowledged and thanked. I'm not great at this, but I'm working at getting better. I don't necessarily shout it from the roof of the building, but I know it makes a difference in how employees think about our workplace and how they think about themselves, and that makes it important to me.
My own inspiration has come from some surprising places in the past couple of years. As part of our early cultural work, we asked employees what they wanted for a work culture and how they felt about how things were. Some of the results were unpleasant but they were effective. What people voiced in many instances was anger, about not being seen, or respected, or validated. It was a classic wake-up call for our entire team about how not to lead. As an organization, we weren't inspiring many people to greater heights, and as leaders, we were spending so much time competing that we weren't making ourselves or our organization better. The feedback wasn't pretty to hear, but it inspired me to take a look in the mirror and work toward setting the leadership bar much higher for myself and my organization.
At the time, I was completely frustrated by my own leader, and didn't realize that it was my responsibility to help him to become the leader I needed. We had some great conversations about expectations, shared values, and vision, and each took responsibility for improved communication, honesty, and personal growth. As I worked through that process with him and the rest of our team, I also had the benefit of some honest but positive feedback from an organizational development consultant who asked me two questions one day. The first was "what's your ambition?" and the second was "why are you so tall?" As I recall, the answer to both questions at the time was a smirk and an eye roll combination worthy of my teenage daughter. Clearly, someone should have paid greater attention in Genetics class on that second question, but the first question made me stop and think...if you're a serious thinker, like I am, there is great value in having someone willing to provoke your thought process, make you stretch, and have some fun.
So that brings me to my final I, which is impact. If you want to be thought of as a leader, and your ambition is to be a great one, you must make an effort to Invite, Include, and Inspire people. Doing so in a way that is authentic for you will create a lasting, positive impact on your organization, the people with whom you interact, and yourself. There's nothing more fun and rewarding than loving what you do and having the opportunity to try to do it better every day.
Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/deborah-sparrow/.