by Marcel Schwantes*
When you think of great leaders, do you conjure up images of charismatic, high-profile executives in expensive suits who make all the right business moves?
Allow me to bring you back to the real world. Leaders are often contrarian types who set themselves apart by employing the skills and habits required to effectively influence human beings.
One of those habits takes more heart than head, as prescribed by a Bill Gates quote years back. It should resonate deep within our collective conscience if we are to raise the bar of our own leadership. The co-founder of Microsoft said:
"As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others."
While that may sound vague to some (what exactly does "empower" mean?), let’s put some definition around it, in the context of effective leadership performance today. But first, we need to clear an obstacle to our thinking about any misconceptions and false truths about what leadership is not.
1. Leadership is not about titles or positional authority.
True leadership doesn’t require a fancy title that comes with a corner office or company car. It doesn’t imply having a position in the hierarchy to "lord over" someone else.
2. Leadership is not about personality traits.
Plenty of people with varying personality traits and temperaments have all proved their leadership abilities. And true leadership is far from what the world perceives makes a good leader: charisma, confidence, extraversion, and a dominant, larger-than-life, take-charge personality. Truth be told, people with such traits may be placed and promoted into positions of leadership quicker than others but rarely will they effectively lead long-term.
3. Leadership is not management.
Managers maintain the work, leaders lead people. And sometimes it may be the same person (but often that’s not the case). To take it one step further, legendary management thinker Peter Drucker said, "One does not manage people...the task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual."
4. Leadership isn’t about you.
True leadership requires egos to be humbled and personal agendas to be surrendered. It’s not about you. It’s about the achievement of goals that bring you and your tribe closer to the noble pursuit of something--a vision or calling--greater than yourselves.
On the flip side: What great leadership is
Gates’s leadership quote runs counter to the archetypal boss who merely gives orders and "drives" people through fear and positional authority.
And while leading a team is no cake walk in today’s fast-paced business setting, leaders are expected to empower their teams to innovate and produce great work. This is the essence of what great leadership looks like.
So let’s get practical. Here are four leadership practices you can start implementing to effectively empower your employees:
1. Great leaders allow people to fail.
The billionaire founder of Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, fosters a culture that encourages and even celebrates failure. There’s an underlying theme at Virgin Group that, without trying something new and failing, it’s virtually impossible to innovate and grow.
Branson says, "We’ve never been 100 percent sure that any of the businesses we’ve started at Virgin were going to be successful. But over 45 years, we’ve always stood by our motto: ’Screw it, let’s do it.’ Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again. Making mistakes and experiencing setbacks is part of the DNA of every successful entrepreneur, and I am no exception."
2. Great leaders create opportunities for people to thrive.
Your people have individual strengths and gifts which you may not even be aware of, which could be leveraged for unique contributions to the business.
So, a top priority for leaders to elevate their game is to recognize and acknowledge those strengths and craft opportunities that will grow their employees in areas where they’ll naturally excel.
This is empowering to employees because they’ll feel like their involvement in new initiatives truly matters to the overall success of the business.
3. Great leaders embrace respectful disagreement.
One of the myths of a great leader is that they’ll magically align everyone to a common vision or goal, and then voila--people are off to the races. Yes, building consensus and pulling people together may be a hallmark of great leaders, but the reality is, people will disagree, choose sides, and voice their opinions.
And you know what? Great leaders will let them.
Great leaders rely on the strength of their team’s diversity and encourage divergent thinking and respectful dissent to examine all alternatives before making a well-informed decision.
This is empowering to employees, who feel like their ideas are heard and considered before the decision is made. But first, a leader’s job is to ensure that people feel safe expressing dissent.
You do that by seeking out opposing viewpoints cross-functionally and across reporting levels and letting your people know that you expect them to challenge the status quo and question decisions.
4. Great leaders share leadership.
If you want to foster high trust, high risk-taking, high creativity, and open communication, and you’re still riding on your autocratic leadership high horse, it may be time to get off, release control, and stop dictating. Now I’m going to tell you to do something very counter-intuitive as a leader: Let your people take turns leading.
My favorite boss takes me back to 2006. He didn’t get caught up in his personal power; he inspired me by making me feel like an equal. And while we had different roles--and mutual respect in our respective roles--we shared our business challenges and decisions as real people.
If you’re in management, consider this: When you build a great team under you, take the higher road of sharing power and decision making. Because when you do, you actually gain real power--your team will have your back and do great work for the company to succeed.
*founder and chief Human Officer
**first published in: www.inc.com