Picture this: you’re about to catch a flight. You arrive at the airport a couple of hours early with your mind racing, anxious about that one random item you may have forgotten to pack (toothbrush again!?). You hustle towards security hoping there’s enough time to grab a coffee, with your carry on click-clacking across the airport tile behind you. After awkwardly fumbling with your laptop and Ziploc bags of essentials, you get through security without too much hassle. Navigating your way to the gate, a lady with a friendly smile takes your identification and tells you to “have a nice flight”. Finally, it’s time for the long walk down the jetway towards the airplane. But suddenly the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and the overwhelming sense that something is different this time overcomes you. You look down expecting to see your usual travel attire of a hoodie, track pants, and sneakers, but in their place is a crisp blue uniform. And what are those shiny shoes you’re wearing?! Your heart starts to race, and a warm, uncomfortable feeling starts to make its way through your body, as you read what the pin on your lapel says:
Your first instinct is to race back up the jetway and click-clack your way back to safety. Instead, you take a deep breath and steel yourself, climb aboard the aircraft, and fight the urge to hang a right and take a seat with the other passengers. Someone kindly introduces you to your flight crew, and you greet them one by one with a sweaty palm, hoping they don’t notice. One of your crew members takes you by the elbow and directs you to the cockpit, telling you takeoff is in ten minutes. Suddenly the gravity of your situation smacks you in the face: all these people are depending on you to lead them to their destination, and you have no idea what you’re doing. Not too long ago you were just like everyone else on the plane, when your biggest concerns were the cramped seats and unbearable safety demonstration. Now suddenly you’re taking over the controls, and nobody sat you down and taught you how to fly the plane.
I’m sure you’ve had vivid dreams like this, where you wake up in a cold sweat, relief washing over you as you realize it was only a dream. But, for real: this is what becoming a new leader is like for many people. It can be difficult to make the leap from an individual responsible for your own results, to a leader responsible for achieving results through others. You’ve worked hard to show people what you’re capable of, and now they’ve given you exactly what you wanted – more responsibility. The only thing is, no matter how much you prepare, it’s tough to understand what being a leader is all about until you are one. That’s because there’s no magic formula for leadership you can learn in a book. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great leadership books out there, but learning about it and putting it into practice are still two very different stories. Like the boxing great, Mike Tyson, said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Now hopefully where you work doesn’t resemble a boxing ring, but this quote is a powerful metaphor for leadership. And like boxing, leadership is something you have to work at. It’s a process of trial and error and finding what works for you and the individuals you lead. Those that get in the ring and hone their leadership craft will form strong relationships, lead their team to new heights, and have an extremely rewarding leadership experience. What follows are five strategies that will help you become the jet pilot or heavyweight champ of leaders. Without further ado, ring the bell and prepare for takeoff - here they are:
1. Be adaptable
No two people are the same, and your leadership style should reflect this. You have to adapt to the individual needs and desires of your people, and it’s much easier if you get to know them. You don’t have to be best friends with them (and probably shouldn’t), but make an effort to understand what they care about when it comes to their work and career. Become a Grandmaster chess player and throw the checker board in the trash. Best-selling author Marcus Buckingham said it best: “The key difference between checkers and chess is that in checkers the pieces all move the same way, whereas in chess all the pieces move differently. Discover what is unique about each person and capitalize on it.”
2. Show them the “why”
People crave a purpose, or a “why”. They want to know they’re making a difference when they go to work in the morning, not just completing a job. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to see how what you do matters to an organization’s greater mission. When a leader can help their people connect these dots, they’ll be rewarded with a passionate, engaged team, helping propel your organization into outer space. The greatest example of this happened in 1962, when a janitor from NASA met John F. Kennedy. “What are you doing?”, John asked the man with broom in hand. “Well, Mr. President,” he responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
3. Empower their development
Pay and benefits are two things leaders don’t often have a lot of control over for their people. Luckily the old adage, “money doesn’t buy happiness”, actually rings true. Compensation sits much lower on the totem pole when it comes to job satisfaction than most people realize. It’s human nature to always want to grow and expand, so give them plenty of opportunities for development instead. Mentorship, stretch goals, exciting projects, training and education are all great ways to provide your people with growth opportunities, and show you value them. Finding these opportunities is a shared responsibility, so have regular development discussions with your people and support them in any way you can.
4. Give them ownership
If you find yourself becoming just another pair of hands, swabbing the deck when you should be guiding from the captain’s seat, it may be time to take a step back and reassess. Giving your people freedom and autonomy is the best way to allow yourself time to focus on what matters most: leading. Your job is to have vision, not authority, so empower the people that are on the front lines, closest to the action. Best-selling author and human behaviour expert, Daniel Pink, says, "Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement." Strive for the latter by showing your people where you want them to end up but letting them determine the best route to get there.
5. Be self-aware
The term “emotional intelligence” (also known as EI or EQ) has become commonplace in today’s world, and for good reason. The Harvard Business Review hails it as “a ground-breaking, paradigm-shattering idea,” and one of the most important business ideas of the last 10 years. EQ is defined as the collection of abilities used to identify, understand, control and assess the emotions of the self and others. Put simply, great leaders are self-aware: they understand how their leadership style influences their team and understand and manage their own emotions. There are many tools on a leader’s EQ toolbelt, but the most important one is leading with heart. Passionate leaders establish trust by showing their emotions and vulnerability in a positive way, and making an effort to connect with their people.
There you have it! Five strategies to help you become the great (or even greater) leader you strive to be. If you take a closer look, you’ll notice a similar thread woven through the fabric of these strategies: they ask that leaders put themselves last. They ask that you put the needs of your team members before your own. You’re probably thinking, “I worked hard to get to the top of the food chain, and now you want me to go to the back of the line?” It can be a difficult concept to grasp for some, because it requires a shift in thinking and a ton of humility and authenticity. Give yourself a break and don’t expect to be perfect at these strategies from day one. Whether you’re a new or experienced leader, continue to work at it and get better every day. In your wake you’ll leave a trail of passionate, engaged team members, and quite possibly have some of the most rewarding times of your career.
Let us know what you think of these five leadership strategies in the comments section below or hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org.