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Four Human-Centric Practices to Becoming an Effective Leader | The good news is that the journey to becoming a leader is learnable
If we reflect back to early on in our careers, we all likely have vivid memories of working with more experienced leaders who ultimately had a big impact on our own leadership journeys. We’ve had the opportunity to interact with and work with some very gifted leaders, and others who weren’t. The questions we always asked ourselves were: What made these leaders better? Why was their impact different? What did they do differently?
There were the very easy to identify, outward-facing characteristics: the better leaders presented themselves as professional and confident. They took the role of leadership very seriously, but at the same time were authentic and comfortable in their own skin. They consistently monitored their environment and the people around them to better inform what they were doing in order to continue to raise their own standards.
In our experience, the more effective leaders always had an appetite to explore different perspectives. This clearly differentiated them from the more average leaders who were looking for people to confirm their perspective. The above-average leader didn’t see conflict in different ideas; instead, they saw a puzzle that they were putting together.
Moreover, the most effective leaders weren’t solely focused on looking for the right answer as much as they were looking for the right people to be part of the future that they were working to create. They seemed to have endless energy to give to people, and they prioritized people over tasks. As one hero leader put it, “HR capital creates financial capital.”
Furthermore, they showed a deep commitment to their purpose and vision. Yet they seemed open to everyone else’s perspective at the same time. Their respect for others, no matter the role or the level, was palpable. And it was never lost on either of us that they assumed their responsibilities with a sense of joy and optimism, in a way that was contagious to those around them.
Our observations early on, although we didn’t know it then, were the basis of our lifelong quest to understand what makes a leader effective.
The Secret Formula of the Most Effective Leaders
At Linkage, our team has done significant research into what makes a great leader. We’ve interviewed hundreds of leadership experts from industries across the globe, analyzed 360° assessment data from 100,00 leaders, and studied the stories of masterful leaders who left an indelible impact. We boiled our findings down to four major human-centric practices that we call Commitments—the critical areas that the most effective leaders commit to mastering throughout their career:
First, they Inspire. They are optimistic about the future. They communicate their optimism with enthusiasm and clarity in the goals that they set for themselves and their teams. They always find a way to show progress to the goals and reinforce it in meaningful ways for their team. When things aren’t working, they acknowledge it and focus on the way forward. This is inspiring to everyone around them. In this sudden global COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to find hope in the future direction for the organization, even if the timetable is much shorter. Instead of talking about a three-year plan, the best leaders are acknowledging the reality and painting a picture of year-end, quarter-end or month-end, all in an effort to paint a clearer picture of future possibilities.
Second, great leaders Engage with people. They see people’s contributions as the path to the vision. They include them, dialogue with them, stretch them, challenge them, and encourage them. They aren’t as interested in telling others the right answer but would rather let answers emerge from shared contributions. They don’t create competition between people, they invite cooperation and collaboration.
Third, they set goals that demand Innovation, recognizing that it is virtually impossible to achieve the goals without disrupting the status quo. Working harder and doing more of the same will not get you there. They willingly change the conversation, change the social dynamics, change expectations, and change what is being done—they elevate their organizations and their products or services. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we are seeing dramatic change and innovation that will fundamentally change entire industries, like education, entertainment and leadership development.
Fourth, they organize and structure people to Achieve and they change the social dynamics of their organizations. They look at the status quo of meetings, town halls, business reviews, board meetings and turn everyday interactions—the relationships, the hand-offs, the collaborations, the information sharing—into something that benefits everyone. We recently adopted a new way of leading and managing our business at Linkage, opening up our leadership meetings, changing how we discuss problems, focusing on a broader group of leaders who can help solve problems. We’re seeing positive change within our teams in a turbulent and unpredictable world.
The good news is that the journey to becoming a leader—to becoming the best version of ourselves and positively influencing those around us—is learnable. The leaders that we studied, just like the rest of us, are on a journey of self- growth and discovery. They admit to and learn from their mistakes. They are deeply thoughtful and retrospective about their role and develop heightened self-awareness that allows for continuous improvement. Their self-coping mechanisms mitigate their stress with joy and optimism, and always keep line of sight to the value that the organization is creating and the future vision. They present themselves as humble, but their sense of self-esteem is contagious and can build confidence and self-worth in others.
Throughout this process, one thing has become abundantly clear: Leadership is a journey. We have the ability to Become a leader over time. The miles count, as they say…the miles behind you, and more importantly, the miles in front of you.
In fact, there is no more important time to double down on our sense of purpose. What is the unique value you and your organization offer the world at a time when all our collective contributions are needed? Virginia chef Mark LeBlanc and his wife dropped everything to help the victims of deadly tornadoes in Tennessee. His organization, Mercy Chefs, provides prepared food to victims and first responders. His purpose is clearly connected to his work: “It is my calling,” said LeBlanc. “It is what I was born to do.”
At Linkage, our mission is to help companies equip all leaders to perform their roles at the highest levels of effectiveness and impact. In times such as these, this mission is even more critical, as we help leaders face uncertainty with confidence.
About the Authors:
Jennifer McCollum is the CEO of Linkage, Inc., where she oversees the strategic direction and global operations of the Boston, MA-based leadership development company. She has 20 years of experience building and leading businesses in the leadership space. Her expertise includes bringing analytic rigor to critical talent decisions by linking leadership behavior to corporate performance outcomes.
Mark Hannum is Chief Research Officer Emeritus at Linkage. An organization development consultant by training, his focus has been on understanding and improving executive processes and decision-making. Mark led Linkage’s most significant research effort, analyzing over 30 years of leadership data and 100,000 leadership assessments, culminated in Linkage’s latest book, BECOME: The Five Commitments to Purposeful Leadership (McGraw-Hill).
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