I’m a bit over the ‘5 things you need to know if you want to be cool’, 9 ways to get a life’, or even ‘51 reasons why you’re obsessed with lists’ articles that dominate my news feeds. Admittedly, I’m guilty of this myself (see here and here) as I understand the attraction of them, and how they capture the reader’s attention.
However, as a leadership trainer and coach, I regularly advise people and companies on how to simplify leadership, and this can be narrowed down to one thing. One word even. And that word is ‘people’.
Given my choice of career, you might think I’m shooting myself in the foot by trying to over-simplify a complex topic. However, I truly believe that once you understand people and human relationships, you can start to understand leadership. Obviously, there are many facets to the leading people, and with science helping us to better understand human behaviour, our knowledge of the subject continues to grow.
Everywhere you look, you see a multitude of courses focusing on emotional intelligence (EQ), mindfulness, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), and personality profiling. Speeches and courses are peppered with words like neocortex, left vs right brain, and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. These all have given us a much more advanced understanding of human behaviour, and how it can improve our leadership skills, and they deserve the attention they get. I regularly use them, when the situation calls for it, but they should never hide the simple fact that they help us understand ‘people’.
Let’s look at the key leadership areas, and how they involve people:
Create an engaged workforce
‘Employee engagement’ has been the buzz term amongst HR, and Learning and Development staff, for the past few years, and rightly so. For too long, companies were solely focused on results at the expense of their staff’s engagement levels. This led to high turnover, until companies switched on to the fact that replacing and retraining staff is costlier than focusing on their well-being and belief in the company’s direction. Good leaders recognise this, and now spend time ensuring that their staff wants to come to work and believe in their overall mission and values.
Be an inspiring role model
Much is made in war movies of the hero fearlessly leading their troops into battle. It’s not quite the same in the corporate world but the same principles exist. Employees look for leaders who are willing to do what they ask of others, and will have their backs at all times. They need leaders who they can look up to and respect, as a result of their actions. Without this, the employees will be reluctant to follow their leader into battle. A true leader understands this part of human nature, and that humans – as a tribe – have always looked for a group leader since prehistoric times.
Recognise and acknowledge employee contributions
When I ask those that I’m training, what motivates them, the first answer is nearly always money. Yet, when I delve deeper, the core reason is usually recognition for their work. Poor leaders often make the mistake of taking their employees for granted, assuming that they should do whatever they want, for as long as they want, as they are being paid for it. This is one of the most demotivating things we can encounter. Successful leaders recognise this and will ensure they both publically and privately, recognise and reward their employees’ contributions on a regular basis. If you don’t believe this, think back to the last time you received genuine praise for a job well done. How good did it make you feel? Wouldn’t it be nice if that were a regular occurrence?
Communicate clearly and succinctly
Good, effective communication in leadership is everything. Leaders at the top of their game are masters at communicating their message clearly and concisely, and gaining maximum buy-in form their employees. They understand how to adapt their communication style when speaking with different personalities, and possess listening skills that ensure those people feel as if they are the only ones in the room. When leaders communicate with their teams, they should listen intently, remain honest, humble, and open, be interested in their audience, speak with clarity, and remain true to their word. It’s not rocket science. It’s human nature.
Demonstrate humility and empathy
No one likes a show-off, especially when it’s your boss or a member of the leadership team. A leader shouldn’t be looking to take credit for their team’s actions. They should be talking in terms of ‘we’ rather ‘I’, and be focussed on providing a platform for others to succeed. Humility shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness, if anything, it’s a display of strength.
Modern leaders understand the positive impact that demonstrating empathy can have. It’s no longer good enough to just expect your employees to work hard for you. You need to understand their needs and be aware of challenges they may be facing. So, I urge all leaders – if not doing so already – to start talking to their employees and understand the problems they face, and create a culture of open communication.
Leaders also shouldn’t underestimate the importance of self-leadership; the ability to understand their own strengths, motivations, and passion that drives them to achieve their goals. After all, you need to understand yourself before you can start to understand others.
Ok, so I could call this article ‘5 Ways for Leaders to Understand People’, or something similar. However, in amongst the plethora of leadership articles out there, most still come down to one thing. One word even. And that word is ‘people’.