4 Fundamentals to Inspire Leadership

by Aseem Chandra

posted on 11-17-2014

This post previously appeared on Entrepreneur on September 17, 2014.

When you’re in high-growth mode it can be easy to put the majority of your energy toward running the day-to-day business and table plans to focus on people and organizational issues until things calm down. But do they ever?

In the always connected world we live in today, clearly the answer is no. That’s why a good portion of my efforts go toward ensuring the organization can scale faster than our business, so we’re well-equipped to handle whatever challenges the next stage may bring.

I’ve had the privilege to be part of a business that has grown nearly tenfold to reach $1 billion in revenue in six short years. The behaviors, skills and leadership required to successfully navigate early growth are different from those needed to grow a mature business.

In order to sustain rapid growth at scale, emerging leaders must be actively identified and developed. A core focus for the established leadership team should be to inspire more leaders from the bench, not to amass more followers. It’s a trap I see new leaders easily fall into. In this economic upswing, identifying, encouraging, coaching and inspiring new leaders is an important part of setting your team up for long-term success.

Much has been written on the topic of leadership. There are those who maintain leaders are born that way, while others believe leadership is an acquired skill. I believe it’s a combination of both. The drive to be a leader must exist somewhere in your DNA, no matter how nascent. However, it’s your experiences, choices, opportunities, and vision that drive this DNA to the forefront and help you achieve those coveted leadership skills.

Give Your Career a Little TLC

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to work with several inspiring leaders. I started my career as an individual contributor, but was fortunate to work for a manager who took the notion of developing leaders very seriously. Through ongoing conversations I soaked up his advice like a sponge, but I’ll admit the concept of being a good leader was a tough and intangible idea to grok when I was starting out.

My earliest mentors tried to impress upon me to think of leadership abilities as active skills I should always work on. I wasn’t going to develop professionally just by virtue of showing up to work and I wasn’t going to be a better leader from simply reading about it. I needed to take a more proactive approach, to seek out new opportunities for both professional and personal growth.

Of course, proactively seeking opportunities to develop as a leader assumes you’re sufficiently self-aware to recognize those opportunities to grow. It’s surprising how often our self-image can be different from others’ perceptions of us. Fortunately, that’s easy to fix—just ask people you value for their candid feedback! And do so frequently. Receiving feedback with grace and being self-aware is the ticket to the journey of becoming an inspiring leader.

It can often be easier to focus on the day-to-day work on your plate by taking on a shorter-term, task-based approach. However viewing your career path as a long-haul flight instead of a two-block bus ride is critical as you work to acquire and build leadership skills. Treat your journey to becoming an inspiring leader as a living, breathing thing you can grow and nurture actively over time.

How will you prepare for that flight and how will you deal with the stops en route to your destination? How will you push yourself to take on more responsibilities beyond what was listed in your job description?

Here are four fundamentals I’ve learned on my journey that can help you evolve from being a good manager to a great leader.

1) Listen, Empathize, and Form Emotional Connections

I love the TV show, Undercover Boss. In each episode, a CEO, owner or senior executive of a company dons a disguise and goes undercover in multiple roles as an entry-level employee at their company. They work side-by-side with those within the ranks to hear about the good, bad and ugly of the day-to-day company operations, and also catch glimpses of budding leaders in the field. The episodes generally conclude with the executive revealing his or her identity and finding ways to address any problems they encountered, as well as empowering newly discovered stars with a promotion or an increase in responsibilities.

These leaders learn a lot about their organizations just by listening and empathizing with employees. As a leader, I believe it’s critical to empathize with many different points of view when you’re embarking on a change, a decision, or a new direction. When a complex issue faces the organization, often, you don’t need to take an immediate position on it. In fact, make it known you have no predisposed stance on the issue by soliciting suggestions and feedback from across the organization. Then, communicate that you’re open to listening to many points of view on the subject.

You need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of not only the person sitting across from you in the boardroom, but those of every employee, customer, partner and shareholder in the business. Taking on issues from many points of view helps you not only fully grasp what is ahead and find new solutions, but it enables you to connect individuals and teams to a cause that is bigger than them.

Creating an emotional connection with the mission of the organization helps inspire your team and gets them thinking beyond the old “rinse and repeat” cycle of showing up to work each morning, getting the daily tasks done and heading home.

Make the effort to find ways to get to know the people several tiers up, down and across the org chart. Hang out over lunch to hear others’ ideas, roll up your sleeves and get in the trenches. Stay later than usual to understand what developers are working on. Reach across functional teams to build new relationships and understand other departments’ challenges.

These efforts will help you achieve respect and credibility across the company and inspire others to join you to tackle the next big organizational challenge. Be that undercover boss who listens, connects emotionally and responds thoughtfully, without having to grow a beard or disguise yourself in a delivery uniform.

2) Create a Common Vision

Strong management is unquestionably an important business skill, but it can sometimes be confused with good leadership. Warren Bennis, a well-respected professor, author and pioneer in the field of leadership studies, said, “Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right. Both roles are crucial, and they differ profoundly.”

Good managers dot their i’s and cross their t’s. They run a tight and organized ship and drive teams to produce intended results, but that doesn’t necessarily imply good leadership. There are many distinctions between a good manager and a great leader, one of which is the ability to clearly communicate a vision, and subsequently motivate others to get behind it and sign up to help realize it.

Reaching out across the organization to listen to and consider different points of view will help you form a more complete vision. A vision based on organizational feedback, as well as buy-in, is better poised to address multifaceted challenges. Think democracy, not autocracy.

Once your vision or goal is developed, just stating it isn’t enough. Translating a vision to your team through the use of tangible metaphors, shared experiences or common ideas brings concepts to life and helps the team buy in to the idea of tackling goals together.

Remaining consistent and focused over time are other hallmarks of a great leader. Wavering opinions, distracting projects, half-hearted convictions or poorly stated goals will not incite your team’s rallying cry.

Put a stake in the ground around your vision and stick to it (unless of course it turns out to be wrong—learning from your mistakes and course correcting are important—but that’s a topic for another day). Having an opinion, articulating it well and standing by it instills others’ confidence in you.

3) Inspire Yourself First, and Others will Follow

Over the years I’ve seen many inspiring leaders in action. They trust and believe in the potential of their teams. I look for leaders on my team who can inspire others, but what does it actually take to inspire someone else? Not coincidentally, before you can inspire others, I believe you need to inspire yourself first.

To inspire someone implies motivating them to go past what they previously thought was the limit of their capabilities. It’s difficult to inspire action or change in others if you’re unable to find inspiration yourself. Being willing to try new things outside of your comfort zone ensures you’re continuously challenged, constantly learning and finding success in new areas. Give yourself a Big Hairy Audacious Goal to work toward and share it among peers and teams to hold yourself accountable and encourage others to create their own.

Each of us has our own views of our capabilities and capacities within our job functions. We know our limits and often shy away from pushing beyond them. Inspirational leaders lead by example. By pushing themselves first, they can become successful at driving every individual and the broader organization to deliver more than they thought they could. Inspirational leaders bring us beyond what we think we’re capable of.

Anytime I’ve been challenged in my career or felt pushed beyond my ability, I’ve fallen back on the belief that the goal is not only possible to achieve, it is in fact inevitable that we will reach it. Believe that it will get done. At the outset we may not know exactly how, but getting everyone in sync about the inevitability of success, acknowledging your trust in them and trusting yourself will get you halfway there. The rest is execution.

Inspiring others beyond their comfort zones will help your team achieve great things.

4) Building the Team

As I’ve moved across organizations and roles over the years, I’ve often found myself staring at the task of building a new product, team or business. As I pondered the enormity of the task ahead after one such change, I received some advice that has stayed with me. One of my mentors simply said, “You have to bring the band together first, and the music will follow.”

Too often in a business’s strategic planning process, management starts by focusing on the predetermined milestones they want to hit. They may want to achieve a certain level of revenue, or launch a new product, or expand into a new region. They then determine the amount of human capital they need to achieve these goals and focus on staffing up their teams.

To me, that’s a backward approach. The band should always come first.

Leaders must first work to bring the right people together and create the right connections between their teams. Rounding out their bench with complementary personalities, skills and styles are key to ensuring the “band” can play in sync and on key.

Once a high-functioning team is in place and aligned around a common vision, the music will follow. Allow your team flexibility on how they actually go about achieving audacious goals. There may be detours along the way, but with the right team in place you’ll find they will be inspired to do more together and do it better than they may have done it on their own.

Step Right Up

Don’t fall back on the belief that leaders are born, not bred. Regardless of how you’ve viewed your leadership potential in the past, each of us has the ability to hone and nurture skills to become a great leader.

The next time Monday arrives, don’t dread all you have to complete in five short days. Instead, inspire yourself to realize the heights you can lead your team in one full week.

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