Great leaders use their influence and powers of persuasion to win over people to their cause and get organizations aligned to a common set of objectives so that all are pulling in the same direction.
But how do they do this?
For someone to be able to influence us or persuade us to go in a direction we might not otherwise want to, they usually need to be someone we trust (or at least respect), someone who can motivate and inspire us; they are usually people that we look up to or aspire to be like. If you think about your own experience of good leaders, both in the public space and in your personal life, the chances are that they are people you look up to in some way.
That does not mean they have to be perfect. Steve Jobs, an incredibly driven and inspiring leader who radically changed the technology landscape, was infamous for his mercurial mood swings and treating people with little respect or consideration.
To become a good leader, we must establish ourselves as someone who can be trusted and respected. One of the easiest ways of achieving this is simply to act as a role model and consistently demonstrate the behaviors you want to see in your team. A leader’s influence extends beyond inspiring people to a cause – it drives people to emulate behaviors. You must be careful of the behaviors you demonstrate, as these will often be reinforced by the organization. A good friend of mine had a great phrase for this, “Apple trees grow apples”, simply meaning that the people in an organization tend to reflect the attitudes and behaviors of their leaders.
Another key trait of good leaders is authenticity – being genuine, and unapologetically themselves, owning their faults as well as their strengths. This enables people to relate to you, and build their trust in you, but showing that level of authenticity can also be a bit scary for a leader. It requires you to open yourself up and be vulnerable to others, showing the real you, including your weaknesses. Without being fully engaged, you run the risk of being seen as aloof and standoffish – not the type of person most people want to follow.
Being able to articulate a clear vision of the future – what the world will look like once we get where we are going – is also critical. This does not mean that you need to be a great orator or a gifted writer; there are many ways of getting a message across. It is only important that the leader understands the vision and can explain it in a way that helps people feel its relevance to them. It is sometimes more important to speak with passion, authenticity, and from the heart than to use exactly the right word. People can often be moved to feel things strongly when you show your strong feelings about a subject. Simon Sinek said it best: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”
It is crucially important that this vision, whatever it is, be something that others can relate to, and feel a part of. As a leader, it is your responsibility to make sure that everyone involved can understand how their actions and behaviors help move closer to this goal. The objective here is to be inclusive. It is not “your” goal; it is “OUR” goal. Collectively, WE have to own this goal and want to drive towards it. An effective leader helps us all understand what that future would look like, what it would mean to us all, how we would feel when we have achieved this, etc. – which will help us want to drive towards that outcome together.
One of the most striking illustrations of leadership I have seen is the analogy of the conductor and the orchestra. In an orchestra, each musician is an accomplished professional perfectly capable of operating independently. The orchestra as a unit can operate quite effectively without a conductor, playing the piece in time and tune, without someone at the front waving a stick around. So why have a conductor there at all? What purpose do they serve?
The conductor focuses on the bigger picture – the performance of a piece of music as they envision it – helping the orchestra as a whole to achieve more than each performer could do independently. A good conductor does not try to tell each of the musicians the best way to play their instruments, but trusts in their ability. The musicians do their part in driving towards the greater objective, with the conductor operating at a higher level, guiding, nudging, encouraging, shaping, and nurturing the orchestra towards a common goal. This ability to empower and trust others while providing guidance and support is a vital piece of the leadership puzzle.
It is important to understand that leadership is a privilege, perhaps even a gift, given to you by the people who follow you and can be easily taken away again. The mere fact that you have authority does not mean that people will automatically follow you. They may do what they are told based on your authority, but that is not the same as them being bought-in and committed team members, sold on the common purpose and willing to raise a hand when things start to go wrong.
I fundamentally believe that all leaders have a duty of care and responsibility for the teams who place their trust in them. As leaders, we must take that responsibility very seriously. Sometimes you can take care of the bigger things by simply looking after the little things. In this case, if you have a committed and trusting team, they will many times help you to lead them through to success.