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by Annette Segal
Trimming my basil plant today got me thinking about Leadership. (I like to keep some fresh herbs in the kitchen to feed my passion for cooking.)
Great leadership takes time…like growing a healthy plant. No amount of tugging on the leaves or urging it to “hurry up” makes the least difference.
So what does?
A few years ago, a friend who led an educational organization was diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing treatment, he hired an interim assistant. It was a critical time for the organization asgrant monies were to be distributed to various new projects while ongoing supervision and review of funded projects was happening simultaneously.
Needless to say, there was a lot going on.
My friend, let’s call him Daniel, had a great relationship with his interim assistant, Diana, whom he knew from a previous position. But he neglected to help Diana understand the dynamics of the education team.
His sense of urgency, his eagerness to “take care of” the organization in his absence was translated by Diana as get things done NOW! To Daniel’s dismay, Diana fired an administrative assistant… and all hell broke loose.
A storm of distrust blew up. Team members began second guessing every decision Diana made. Disgruntled and confused, Diane led staff meetings that deteriorated into “complaint sessions.” Getting anything done felt like jogging in molasses.
By the time Daniel was well enough to return full time, there was such a big mess to deal with that it took him weeks to recreate the happy, healthy organization he had left.
But there was one BIG difference.
He now realized how important it was to cultivate autonomy among his capable team members.
That required slowing down, sharing what was up, allowing other’s ideas to become part of the mix of “how to” skills and not pushing so hard to be the one who got “it” done. Daniel learned to tune into the situation, in all its complexity and include everyone involved.
For my basil, I have to tune into the needs of the plant – does it require more or less light, more or less frequent watering, nutrients in the soil, trimming off dead leaves?
When applied to people, in an organization or on a team, a willingness to ask questions like:
1. What’s your take?
2. How would you approach this situation?
3. What changes would you like to see?
4. How can we do better?
…distinguishes the great from the merely good or adequate leader.
Good and adequate leaders simply “urge growth”. They may talk a lot, offering educated opinions or point to past experience, thinking they are encouraging their team. Yet, without really tuning into the person in front of him, his good intentions may actually be turning the situation sour.
On the other hand, great leaders cultivate greatness by tuning into their teams or organization as a regular part of leading.
On any given team there may be the introspective member who needs solitude and quiet to do her best work, alongside someone who feeds on stimulation and encouragement . You may have a direct report who responds to processes as support while his peer sees them as restraints.
One member of an organization may like being the “guide on the side” while another requires the limelight. And while a team outwardly has a vested interest in achieving the same outcomes, how members coordinate their efforts, energies and actual work to get there is a complicated by the human factor. Each person contributes unique strengths (and challenges).
The great leader utilizes the complementary strengths to support her organization or team in reaching its goals.
How, you’re asking?
If you’re a leader, get curious, stay open and refrain from making assumptions – about your people or solutions. Before determining a course of action, ask lots of questions – direct questions from a place of openness and tolerance. Listen to the answers, really listen from a place of “not-knowing”.
That’s a big shift.
Some “listening” looks more like, “Are you agreeing with my point of view?” And if you aren’t, I’m preparing my arguments for a particular position. This kind of listening doesn’t allow for hearing the other person. It gets in the way.
Listening from a place of “not knowing” includes open body language, open attention to the other (without an inner impatience to be heard). It includes humility – a quality worth cultivating.
A great leader wants to cultivate people with different competencies than herself. It strengthens the team, brings forward other perspectives, supports initiative and makes for powerful brainstorming. She learns as much as she can about her team and from their team. Asking for input from team members also builds their confidence (and loyalty) a big incentive in itself.
A leader armed with real data, perspectives and approaches and knowledgeable about any other constraints, can move forward and make sound decisions. One who is legitimately grateful for the input of her team, and also direct about the course of action, builds trust based on mutual respect.
It’s also important to stay away from psychoanalyzing your people. Instead observe closely and combine the observed behavior with answers to your questions to make grounded assessments. Build loyalty by encouraging people to be their best, though that may look different in different people.
And stay far away from the “one size fits all” way of leading – as much as is possible. Within the constraints of your projects, honor the differences in your team members. Take the time necessary to listen well, listen deeply and celebrate successes, even the little ones. Encouragement is part of the great leadership toolkit.
Instill self-confidence. It leads to boldness. Boldness fosters creative solutions. So praise, encourage, and challenge…but keep the challenges achievable and never take effort for granted.
And to encourage big ideas, great leaders avoid “knowing” everything.
Instead, they stay humble and open to others. By inviting opinions, they foster an atmosphere of creative problem solving and stay approachable.
So back to my basil plant. The connection? This way of leading takes time – like good gardening.
It requires a commitment to building a great workplace. It recognizes the importance of great teams. And while outwardly it may appear too slow, the gains in team confidence, contribution and loyalty go a long way towards high end productivity, viable solutions to problems that inevitably arise and real profits – personal and for the organization.