One of the most inspiring leaders I have worked with in my career didn’t have a “polished” approach. They didn’t have a university degree, a particularly extensive vocabulary, or an expensive suit. Their resume was not full of high-profile international experience.
Regardless, I learned many, many things about great leadership from this person – probably too many for a single blog. But, if I had to summarise the most important lessons I learned from this person, it would look something like this.
Lesson 1: Seek first to understand, then to be understood
While it might not be fashionable these days to quote Stephen Covey, the leader I’m talking about consistently applied this sentiment in their day-to-day approach, which enabled them to effect well-considered, sustainable, and well-supported change.
At the time when this person and I worked together, their remit was rapidly expanding to incorporate more and varied departments and functions of the business. It would have been tempting for them to want to make their mark in each new department quickly and put in place a series of rapid changes to get some quick runs on the board.
Instead, this leader invested time up front to listen and to understand each new department and function in some detail, seeking counsel from experienced employees at all levels to identify the reasons why things were the way they were. Along the way, they did identify and action a few quick wins, but held off on implementing larger scale change until they felt confident that their decision-making process was fully informed; that everyone had the chance to be heard; and equally, that everyone had the chance to hear and understand what this leader was ultimately trying to achieve.
Compare this to leaders and managers who take a “new broom” approach. We’ve all worked with one – they march in a blaze of glory and noise, quickly espousing their views on all that’s wrong with their new workplace, and disregarding existing employees as being outdated or reluctant to change.
While this approach may lead to some short-term wins, the result is often to disenfranchise existing employees and make (ultimately inappropriate) decisions based on incomplete information. I can’t think of too many “new broom” leaders who’ve lasted the distance.
Lesson 2: Own your decisions
Of course, seeking first to understand doesn’t mean simply taking every opinion and explanation offered at face value. The leader I’m writing about needed to assess the efficacy of each piece of feedback in the context of the strategy and objectives of the business, and make decisions that they knew would be unpopular in some quarters.
However, because the decisions made were based on thorough research and articulated in a way that was easy for everyone to understand, those who were not fully convinced were at least accepting (and many became convinced over time).
It also had a lot to do with the clear accountability this leader displayed. It was regularly commented that this person “owned all their decisions”, committing to them in full and taking the lead in wearing the consequences if things didn’t go to plan. In doing this, they set the standard for their teams to follow.
I recall this leader saying that it was easy to commit to any decision and accept its consequences if you genuinely believed it was the right thing to do. This conviction assisted in inspiring a shared vision and creating a culture of accountability.
Lesson 3: You’re not any more important than anyone else, so don’t act like you are
The leader I’m describing displayed genuine humility. They were clear on the fact that theirs was just one of the roles needed to make the organisation successful, and that their job title simply meant that they had different (not more important) work to do.
However, this did not mean that they accepted poor behaviour or results – quite the opposite. While they consistently treated every employee with respect and dignity, behaviour that was not aligned with the organisation’s values and culture was dealt with swiftly. The story of this leader pulling a middle manager aside and quietly suggesting that “You’re not any more important than anyone else, so don’t act like you are and maybe people will be more inclined to support you” became organisational legend.
This leader encouraged input from everyone throughout the entire business, encouraging them to understand their contribution to the broader organisation and recognising that good ideas aren’t derived only from those with “manager” or “specialist” in their position description. Good ideas (and whose they were) were publicly recognised. Praise was not flowery or tokenistic, but authentic. Team members were empowered and encouraged to succeed; while at the same time there was a clear understanding of what would happen if results were not achieved.
As I continue my own leadership journey, I often reflect on the lessons I learned from this exceptional leader. They didn’t fit the traditional mould, and on paper, they may not have looked like someone with the capability to inspire transformation which resulted in a considerably more successful business than before. But that’s exactly what they did.
And I hope that if they read this blog, they recognise themselves and the impact they’ve had on my – and probably many other people’s – leadership journey.
About the Author
Kate Phillips joined Revelian in 2015, continuing a 20+ year career in B2B marketing which has spanned the HR and recruitment sectors internationally, as well as government, media, transport and construction.
Kate holds a Master of Management, Bachelor of Business and Certificate IV in Training and Assessment.
In her current role, Kate is responsible for Revelian’s international brand, marketing and customer service strategies.