Winning at Working: Follow-Me Leaders
by Nan Russell
"Weren't you afraid?" This is a common question friends ask after seeing pictures of how close we were to lions, elephants, leopards, and hippos. After all, our safari into the African bush wasn't Disney's Animal Kingdom, and watching a lion pride hunt and kill its prey made that apparent. But I never was fearful. There were times when adrenalin heightened my awareness, but the trust in our trackers and guides transcended my fear.
I wish I could say the same about many who guide our workplaces and hold leadership roles in our organizations. In that terrain, I am afraid.
Afraid that the economic crisis punctuated by the greed and excess will continue to erode the trust necessary to engage the unengaged; afraid that tough decisions for layoffs by some are becoming an easy out for others; and afraid that like the children's fable of the "Emperor's New Clothes," leaders are believing advisors who tell them what they want to hear and that "everything is still all right."
But it's not. The truth is that everything isn't all right in our workplaces. People are frustrated, angry, disillusioned, tired, and afraid. Not to mention skeptical, cynical, and distrustful. And those plaques touting people as your most important asset, take them down. They're a hypocritical reminder of last century's failed promise. Not everywhere, of course, but in far too many organizations.
In the past twelve months I've been in dozens of states, worked with numerous companies, and spoken to thousands of employees. My perspective is this: the majority of workplaces haven't been "all right" for some time.
Discretionary efforts are tamed, ideas are shelved in heads, and interest in work has waned at a time when intellectual property and initiative are competitive necessitates leaders can't buy with just a paycheck. And a leader mentality that "they" should be happy that "they" even have a job is hardly a model for inspiring more than basic effort.
Employees are waiting for "follow-me" leaders. They're watching for alignment between what leaders say and what they do. They're looking for people they can trust. There's an often-repeated story about political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi which illustrates this concept.
The story goes that a woman approached Gandhi with a small child in hand, asking him if he would please help her by telling her son to stop eating sweets. "Well," Gandhi said, pausing to consider her request. "Yes I can help you, but you'll need to come back in a week." So in a week the mother returned with her son and Gandhi told the boy, "Don't eat sweets."
Surprised by his words, the mother asked if that was all he had to say to her son. "It is," Gandhi replied. "Couldn't you have told him that when we were here a week ago?" she queried. "No," said Gandhi. "A week ago I was still eating sweets."
As a leader, your self-alignment influences your credibility with staff. Credibility ignites trust. Trust fuels followership and engagement. Self-alignment differs from the commonly repeated phrase "walk the talk." It's the difference between being and acting.
Let's say you "walk the talk" of your company's value of sustainability and going green, acting accordingly when it's convenient. But when it's inconvenient or you're at home or a sacrifice is required, your actions don't align. That's because this value isn't part of who you are (at least not yet), even though you may "do it" at work.
Or maybe you announce a cost cutting initiative, eliminating business class for international travel, reducing per diem amounts, and freeze hiring and salaries. But you exempt the senior management team because they "deserve" the perks, and you certainly aren't going change to commercial flights or forego your bonus. Contrast that with a follow-me leader who models what she expect from others and follows her own edicts.
A black-tipped tail serves as a follow-me mark in the African bush so that prides can follow the leading lion, but those who lead in the business world don't get followers just because their title says they should. They get them by being self-aligned. Employees decide which leaders they will give their ideas, enthusiasm, and commitment to. These follow-me leaders realize that a "win" game no longer plays in successful workplaces. They bring the best of who they are to their work and help others do the same. That approach grows the pie bigger for everyone as they operate with a philosophy that it's only when we're all winning that we all win. And when the pie shrinks from time to time, they share that as well.
Winning philosophies drive their behaviors, creating work groups, communities, schools, and homes where others thrive, differences are embraced, and ideas, productivity and excellence flourish. These follow-me leaders offer the why behind the what, give trust, and share knowledge openly.
So here's the bottom line: we have a choice. We can continue the de-motivating spiral of self-indulgent unaligned leaders, or we can decide to create tomorrow's workplaces by being self-aligned ourselves, and expecting nothing less from those we are willing to follow.
Nan Russell may be contacted at http://www.winningatworking.com firstname.lastname@example.org
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Author of Hitting Your Stride: Your Work, Your Way (Capital Books; January 2008). Host of "Work Matters with Nan Russell" weekly on webtalkradio.net. Nan Russell has spent over twenty years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. Sign up to receive Nan's "Winning at Working" tips and insights at http://www.nanrussell.com
(c) 2008 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved.