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Lack of Leadership Hurts

April 27, 2018 Bernardus Holtrop

When I started leading teams as a young consultant, after a short while I thought I had it all figured out. I was clear on the output we were generating, distributed work well, and made sure to pay attention to team members’ development—an early sign of my passion for developing people.

However… something was missing. Actually, a lot was missing. A generous colleague who interviewed my team about my leadership put it in one word: they missed my “umpf.”

What they were really saying is that they were missing inspiration, new challenges, setting a high bar for performance—and that feeling of pride that comes from accomplishing something really hard together.

I was leading from a belief that highly talented people didn’t need much leadership; that they would figure out what to do once they were given a target and some direction on how to achieve it. Maybe I was overcompensating for having experienced micromanagement gone wrong firsthand.

The Absentee Leader

Turns out, I wasn’t alone. In a recent Harvard Business Review article “The Most Common Type of Incompetent Leader”, the authors call this absentee leadership. In a recent survey, eight of the top nine complaints of leaders were not about what they did, but what they didn’t do. Moreover, the impact of absentee leadership was more negative and longer lasting than that of destructive leadership.

Our team’s research about what makes great leaders great helped me see much more clearly what I wasn’t doing that my team really needed.

It turns out that the most effective leaders make five commitments to the people they lead: to Inspire, to Engage, to Innovate, to Achieve, and to Become Purposeful. Looking back, I was certainly achieving, but I was not really inspiring or engaging in a way that delighted and excited my team members.

Despite my good effort, I was falling short in the area that mattered the most.

Inspiration, it’s up to you

It took me a few years to realize this, and to get significantly better. Here are a few things that I worked on that you might find useful as you work with your team to inspire greatness this year:

  • Imagine success – In our team meetings, I set aside time for us to talk as a group about what’s inspiring for us as an outcome or vision, before talking about whether it’s feasible or not. Together, we imagine what our clients’ lives will be like when we’re successful, and how that will make us feel.
  • Discuss meaning – As a team, we discuss what’s meaningful and inspiring for each of us in terms of what we work towards and how we work together.
  • Practice authenticity – I have candidly shared my journey to be a more present leader and my attempts to be more aspirational with my team. This helps to create an environment where they are comfortable sharing their own experiences and stories of personal development.

How can you begin your own journey from being an absentee leader to being a purposeful leader? Ask yourself, how can I become more: Inspiring? Engaging? Innovative? Purposeful?

Take note of what comes to mind and share your comments below.

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