Inspiring loyalty: How to be a leader your employees want to follow

Herminia Ibarra discusses reinventing your leadership. Source: YouTube/Implement Consulting Group

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SmartCompany, 12 July 2021

Despite the vast literature that glorifies leaders, the cold hard truth is that successful leadership is the result of work, focus, principles and values. Effectiveness is what counts, not glamour or charisma, and substance beats style every day.

This Expert’s Playbook synthesises advice from Jim Collins, Brené Brown, Robert Iger, Herminia Ibarra, and more. It features strategies and tips from leaders that have consistently performed at the highest level for decades.

Don’t confuse charisma with leadership

“Should everyone have the same leadership style? No, of course not. Your leadership style will be a function of your own unique personality characteristics,” says Jim Collins in Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0.

“Some effective leaders are quiet, shy, and reserved; whereas others are outgoing and gregarious. Some are hyperactive and impulsive; others are more methodical. Some are old, wise, and experienced; others are young, brash, and adventurous. Some love to give speeches; others are nervous in front of a crowd. Some are charismatic; others are not. (Do not confuse leadership with charisma. Charisma does not equal leadership, and some of the most effective leaders have very little charisma).

“Examine the spectrum of world leaders and notice how much their styles differ: Mahatma Gandhi (frail and soft-spoken), Abraham Lincoln (melancholy and thoughtful), Winston Churchill (the fierce and indomitable bull-dog), Margaret Thatcher (stern and tenacious, the ‘Iron Lady’), Martin Luther King Jr. (impassioned, eloquent). Yet, in spite of the wide range of styles, each of these leaders was highly effective. Cultivate your own style; don’t try to be someone you’re not or to take on a style that doesn’t fit. Can you imagine Winston Churchill trying to imitate Gandhi’s style, wearing a loincloth and speaking in a soft, almost inaudible voice? Conversely, can you imagine Gandhi chewing on big fat cigars and growling, ‘Our policy is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and all the strength God can give us … ‘? These images are absurd. But they’re no more absurd than if you try to ape someone else’s style. An effective style grows from within you. It should be entirely yours. No one except you should have a style exactly like yours.”

Your work defines you as a leader

“People become leaders by doing leadership work,” writes London Business School professor and leading management thinker Herminia Ibarra in this extract from her book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader.

“When we act like a leader by proposing new ideas, making contributions outside our area of expertise, or connecting people and resources to a worthwhile goal (to cite just a few examples), people see us behaving as leaders and confirm as much. The social recognition and the reputation that develop over time with repeated demonstrations of leadership create conditions for what psychologists call internalising a leadership identity — coming to see oneself as a leader and seizing more and more opportunities to behave accordingly. As a person’s capacity for leadership grows, so too does the likelihood of receiving endorsement from all corners of the organisation by, for example, being given a bigger job. And the cycle continues.”

Ibarra’s three tools for reinventing yourself as a leader

As a leader, you’ll likely to be forced to reinvent yourself multiple times over your career to meet the needs of your business. Ibarra says, “We cannot survive without learning how to do new things, the question is how to go about it”.

Credit where it is (and isn’t) due

“No matter how much credit you give your people, the romance of leadership means you — as the boss — will probably get more than you deserve from outsiders,” writes Robert Sutton in Good Boss, Bad Boss.

“A host of studies on ‘overclaiming’ muddies things further. Individuals consistently give themselves more credit for their team’s productivity than they deserve: When people in four- or five-person teams are each asked privately to estimate what percentage they contributed to the group’s product, the total usually adds up to around 150%. This research means that you, dear boss, are also prone to privately (and perhaps publicly) giving yourself more credit than you deserve. Everyone wins if you can bring yourself to give your people as much credit as possible and take as little as possible. You get tons of credit anyway because you are the boss; your people will see you as more truthful, and you will be admired (especially by outsiders) for your modesty and generosity.”

Armored vs. daring leadership when problem solving

“So leading reactively is a form of armored leadership because we’re in fear, we react, we self-protect,” says Brené Brown in her Dare to Lead podcast.

“Leading proactively and strategically requires making good decisions based on the best data we have at the time. It’s more vulnerable. It’s hard getting out in front of things, being strategic in our thinking, it is more risk-taking, requires more innovation, but it is daring leadership.

So an indicator of leading reactively is decision-making, problem-solving, and delegation processes are scattered, reactive, and done without context of other organisational issues. People are panicked, they’re working in silos, and they’re moving fast to fix something or repair something without stepping back and out of the panic and the fear to make a more holistic decision. When we lead proactively and strategically, decision-making, problem-solving, and delegation practices are thoughtful deliberate and integrated with ongoing organizational strategies. A huge indicator light related to this in leading reactively: action bias. Get it done now, which often leads us to solve problems that we haven’t fully defined.

“Einstein said, ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes solving it’. So the daring leadership side is just that: We invest in problem identification and definition.”

Brené Brown. Credit: Randal Ford

Categorising elements of leadership to improve them individually

“These are the ten principles that strike me as necessary to true leadership. I hope they’ll serve you as well as they’ve served me,” concludes Robert Iger, former Disney chief executive, in The Ride of a Lifetime:

Robert Iger’s 10 principles of leadership

1 Optimism

One of the most important qualities of a good leader is optimism, a pragmatic enthusiasm for what can be achieved. Even in the face of difficult choices and less than ideal outcomes, an optimistic leader does not yield to pessimism. Simply put, people are not motivated or energized by pessimists.

2 Courage

The foundation of risk-taking is courage, and in ever-changing, disrupted businesses, risk-taking is essential, innovation is vital, and true innovation occurs only when people have courage. This is true of acquisitions, investments, and capital allocations, and it particularly applies to creative decisions. Fear of failure destroys creativity.

3 Focus

Allocating time, energy, and resources to the strategies, problems, and projects that are of highest importance and value is extremely important, and it’s imperative to communicate your priorities clearly and often.

4 Decisiveness

All decisions, no matter how difficult, can and should be made in a timely way. Leaders must encourage a diversity of opinion balanced with the need to make and implement decisions. Chronic indecision is not only inefficient and counterproductive, but it is deeply corrosive to morale.

5 Curiosity

A deep and abiding curiosity enables the discovery of new people, places, and ideas, as well as an awareness and an understanding of the marketplace and its changing dynamics. The path to innovation begins with curiosity.

6 Fairness

Strong leadership embodies the fair and decent treatment of people. Empathy is essential, as is accessibility. People committing honest mistakes deserve second chances, and judging people too harshly generates fear and anxiety, which discourage communication and innovation. Nothing is worse to an organisation than a culture of fear.

7 Thoughtfulness

Thoughtfulness is one of the most underrated elements of good leadership. It is the process of gaining knowledge, so an opinion rendered or decision made is more credible and more likely to be correct. It’s simply about taking the time to develop informed opinions.

8 Authenticity

Be genuine. Be honest. Don’t fake anything. Truth and authenticity breed respect and trust.

9 The relentless pursuit of perfection

This doesn’t mean perfectionism at all costs, but it does mean a refusal to accept mediocrity or make excuses for something being ‘good enough’. If you believe that something can be made better, put in the effort to do it. If you’re in the business of making things, be in the business of making things great.

10 Integrity

Nothing is more important than the quality and integrity of an organisation’s people and its product. A company’s success depends on setting high ethical standards for all things, big and small. Another way of saying this is: the way you do anything is the way you do everything.

There is always a higher standard

“Never stop trying to become a more effective leader. You can always be better. There is always a higher standard,” says Jim Collins in Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0.

“Never stop learning or developing your skills. Remain resolutely committed to the constant pursuit of a higher standard. Try, with each day, to be better than the day before. Pay attention to your weaknesses and shortcomings. Ask for brutal feedback on where you are weak and what you should work on. Ask for candid criticism of your leadership style from those who work with you and for you. Also ask brutally objective outsiders to observe your leadership style and make comment … None of us find it pleasant to have our shortcomings pointed out. It hurts. We therefore tend to avoid getting feedback that we know will expose our shortcomings. But, like distasteful medicine, it’s necessary. To be a really exceptional leader, you’ve got to be committed to continual self-improvement.”

There are no secrets, only self-discipline and hard work

“In the end, there are few secrets to leadership,” writes General Stanley McChrystal, the famed US military leader, in his memoir My Share of the Task.

“It is mostly just hard work. More than anything else it requires self-discipline. Colourful, charismatic characters often fascinate people, even soldiers. But over time, effectiveness is what counts. Those who lead most successfully do so while looking out for their followers’ welfare. Self-discipline manifests itself in countless ways. In a leader I see it as doing those things that should be done, even when they are unpleasant, inconvenient, or dangerous; and refraining from those that shouldn’t, even when they are pleasant, easy, or safe.”

If your employees identify with you, they’ll follow you

“How do you get others to identify with you?” asks Herb Cohen in You Can Negotiate Anything.

“If you act as a professional and reasonable person in dealing with people you can gain their cooperation, loyalty, and respect. Don’t pull rank or overplay your authority. Rather, try to convey understanding and empathy. Speak to the other person’s needs, hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Approach each person on a human level with the hope that you can help them solve their problem. If you exhibit this behavior you will release a subtle, persuasive kind of power reminiscent of the magic appeal of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. When we speak of leadership and charisma we are often talking about individuals who conduct themselves in such a respected fashion that they inspire emulation. Those who follow a leader, sometimes at great sacrifice, so identify with that person that they feel that his or her triumphs are their own … The power of identification exists in all interpersonal relationships including business transactions and politics.”