Effective leadership

Effective Leadership Starts and Ends with People

Leadership is about people, and people are always going to be complex.

Leadership is about people, and people are always going to be complex. Human-centric approaches to leadership focus on generating a positive environment and allowing a resilient, coherent culture. As we move into an ever more interconnected and complex future, organizations that do not embrace or learn to harness natural human behaviors may see themselves eclipsed by a new breed of organization that do. So, how do we cultivate this kind of environment and induce actions and habits fundamental to collaboration, adaptability and innovation? 

Companies run better when employees have the freedom to apply their experience and insights to advancing the organization’s goals. For example, consider Southwest Airlines, which regularly produces healthy profits in part by empowering its employees to solve problems on their own

However, many leaders still struggle to implement this type of trust-based management strategy and truly let go of the ingrained thinking of past generations. These generations rarely spoke of specific outcomes beyond a defined task and rarely exposed how these tasks fit together to create a differentiating service or product. It removes an individual’s own creativity and sometime intelligence to contribute to the overall outcome. As a result, many workplaces still suffer from the legacy of outdated command-and-control leadership styles that divide workers between the thinkers who make decisions (managers) and the doers who execute them (employees).  

These styles tend to come naturally because they align with our cultural norms (too often supported by Hollywood clichés) and require less cognitive strain. However, they have severe limitations in a world where economies, technologies and cultures are changing over a period of months rather than generations. A modern, evolving world requires modern, evolving leadership practices built around human beings — who are still at the core of every problem, solution and opportunity in your business. 

To let go of outdated strategies and embrace a more modern leadership style, that change has to start from within. In this post — the first of three on how to lead in the modern world — I’ll discuss some of the issues to consider as you begin your journey toward growth. 

Define what the purpose of leadership is to you 

Before you chart a course toward becoming a better leader, you must decide what the purpose of leadership is for you. What do you see as your main responsibility as a manager? Maybe it’s making sure your team stays on track with the strategies laid out by corporate leadership, or giving clear instructions so your team knows precisely which actions to take.  

These are probably the two most common leadership archetypes that I have encountered in practice through my career and are often both embodied by the same manager. While, there is a time and place for both approaches the field of leadership is significantly more varied than that and these two styles are deeply limited in their own right. One is focused on obeying or enforcing the company’s doctrine and the other is focused on micro-management. Neither of them poses the question “why?” and neither of them respect the human elements in the system. 

Whether you aspire to be a leader or you’re already leading a team, you may have reached your own conclusions about the purpose of leadership. But I believe successful leaders inspire those in their charge to do great things. Just giving instructions or keeping your team “in line” won’t help them reach their full potential — in fact, with the exception specific circumstances where these methods are still relevant, it will likely only hold them back. 

Instead, work with your team to help them understand your organization’s purpose and their roles in it. This is why purpose is so important to great leadership. When an employee’s purpose is misaligned with the organization’s purpose, you get dissonance and division; when purposes are aligned, you get emerging synergies and coherence. If employees are encouraged to evolve within the context of broader organizational goals, impressive outcomes are rarely far behind. 

Don’t discount the power of emotions 

In highly skilled professions like software development and engineering, technical skills are often treated as the only determining factors in finding new leadership talent. This is a one-dimensional view of a multi-faceted issue, and it leads to the promotion of employees to management who aren’t equipped to lead. 

As a leader, you’re ultimately dealing with people — human beings who each have their own complexities, idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses. While this doesn’t mean technical skills have no value for leadership, social and emotional intelligence matters a great deal more. On the list of 10 behaviors of great managers identified by Google’s Project Oxygen, technical skills only rank in eighth place.  

Never underestimate the responsibility and power of emotions in leadership. Daniel Goleman describes “primal leadership” as the ability to “move and inspire” us. These words reflect an emotional connection that is generally avoided by cliched, “traditional” leadership archetypes. And building that connection is vital to a modern, flexible leadership style. 

Grow your self-awareness 

To be an emotionally intelligent leader, you must understand your strengths and weaknesses, and surround yourself with people who counterbalance them. You also must be able to take criticism and hear dissent objectively. One of my favorite mantras is “take it seriously, but don’t take it personally.” It’s possible to take difficult feedback onboard without letting it trigger defensiveness or another knee-jerk response. 

To build these capabilities, self-knowledge is key. You must know where your vulnerabilities lie and which situations are likely to make you uncomfortable. Beyond reflecting on these questions yourself, ask a trusted colleague or mentor for candid feedback. Getting their perspective may reveal patterns that you’ve missed or new areas you need to work on.  

The important thing is to never stop learning. The field of leadership is a nuanced, complex and potentially infinite pool of knowledge and discovery. The best leaders often spend more time asking questions than answering them. Whether you’re growing your self-awareness, getting to know your team and its needs, or learning about management techniques, the learning process, especially for the growing leader, is never truly over. This includes learning the balance of evaluating outcomes over managing tasks.  As you begin to build trust with your team — the topic of the next blog post in this series — an open mind and the ability to learn will be especially vital. 


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About the Authors

Andy Birchall

Lead Engagement Manager

Andy Birchall

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