Leading Humans

Nov. 8, 2016
I feel the same way about leadership advice that Paul McCartney felt about silly love songs. You would think the world has had enough, but if you look around, you see it isn’t so.

So, here we go again. I have coached several top-level executives who wanted to be better leaders, were extremely intelligent and had a lot of technical education and experience in their respective industries. All of them struggled with exactly what they should do to increase their effectiveness and engage their people. All of them were masters of leading and managing almost everything except human beings.

In looking back at what I most often suggested and taught these leaders, four categories stood out in my notes and memories. The four categories became targeted areas of improvement for these leaders and proved to be highly impactful when mastered. All are basic ways of treating humans like humans while leading them toward organizational goals.

These not are the only things leaders must do well, but they are the ones most leaders instinctively or automatically don’t do well as they became leaders. They just are not behavioral improvement targets, but mindset changes that tend to result in a better leadership style as well.

Be human – Many leaders intentionally or unintentionally separate themselves from other people in their organizations. This just not is a difference in paygrade or lifestyle. It is a difference in humanity.

Many leaders almost have no contact with the people at lower levels other than the occasional parade to show that they manage by wandering around. Conversations strictly are about business or have shallow platitudes of "How is the family?" as introductions to business discussions.

The most effective leaders stay connected to their people at the human level as well as the business level. You can’t know or be close friends with everyone in a large organization, but you can form circles of extended family and friends. Humans follow humans, not just ideas, visions, missions, strategies and goals.

Be optimistically realistic – Great leaders do not lose their optimism, but they also do not lose their sense of reality. Stretch goals cannot become "mission impossible" and still elicit the best effort from other human beings.

Truly effective leaders target progress rather than perfection. They realize that all goals must be reached a step at a time and that unrealistic goals targeted at perfection actually stifle discretionary effort. Humans need to see the light at the end of the tunnel if they are to press forward with all their might and ability.

It often is argued that goals of 100 percent or "zero accidents" prevent developing a tolerance for some degree of failure. However, they also can send the message that anything short of perfection is failure. This mindset necessitates that leaders not overreact to failures with overkill rules or procedures.

Over-control is another excellent way to demotivate a workforce and create a chasm between workers – the practical ones who get things done – and their leader, the unrealistic maker of rules that don’t help accomplish their purpose.

Be your own translator – Leaders often come from one of the silos of function within their organization. Engineers tend to speak a technical language, attorneys tend to speak a language of exposure and control, financial managers tend to speak the language of money and salespeople tend to make everything a sales pitch. Workers speak a completely different language, and often workers from different departments, crafts or trades speak their own language.

Great leaders are translators. Not only can they speak the language of each group, but they can address the issues particular to that group. When you assess a culture and workers regularly say that their leader really speaks their language, you have found an effective leader.

Some leaders count on their department managers to translate their message to each group. I have seen this work, but even at best this puts another degree of distance between the leader and the workers. The message gets through but the humanity of the leader does not. Leadership becomes theoretical and abstract rather than a human function of the organization. The coach is up in the press box sending in the plays rather than down on the field with the players.

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