An elderly man sat nervously on the bench in his doctor’s waiting room. A younger fellow came in and took a seat next to him, and couldn’t help but notice the older man’s poor posture. When the nurse called the old man back, the younger man noticed he stooped over, his legs shook, and he seemed on the verge of falling over.
“Man,” the young fellow mused, “that old man is in rough shape.”
A few minutes later, the door to the doctor’s office opened up and the old man emerged. Only now he was standing tall, his legs strong, and a wide smile spread across his face. The young man was amazed, and when the old man strode confidently by, the younger fellow jumped up and grabbed his arm.
“My goodness!” the young man exclaimed. “It’s like a miracle happened! What did that doctor do?”
The old man smiled and said, “He looked me over, analyzed the situation, and gave me a cane.”
I love jokes like that – and not because I’m older. I love the truth that sometimes, we need someone to help us assess our situation and point us towards a solution. We all understand the need to see our doctor for a physical checkup on a regular basis, but have you ever considered visiting a professional for a leadership checkup? It may sound strange, but I want to encourage you to give it a chance.
You see, last week I shared some thoughts with you about leading your peers. Two weeks ago, I sought to help you understand how to lead your leader. All of this has been part of a series revisiting some of the themes from my book The 360° Leader.
Well, today I want to touch on the concept of leading your followers, but instead of teaching you what to do, I want to help you examine what you’re already doing. I’m calling it The Leadership Checkup, and it’s for anyone who leads a team. No matter how big your team is, or whether they’re volunteers or employees, it’s beneficial for you as a leader to take some time and assess how well you’re leading those that follow you. That’s why I have three simple tests to help you gauge the health of your leadership and point you towards opportunities for greater health.
And don’t worry – unlike your annual physical, this won’t take long at all.
Check the Temperature
The easiest part of any doctor’s visit is when the nurse takes your temperature. Pop a digital thermometer into your mouth, and within seconds, you know if your body is fighting an infection or humming along healthily. I find it’s helpful to check the temperature of your team from time to time, and just like in the doctor’s office, it’s easy. Also just like in the doctor’s office, it’s more accurate when you keep your mouth closed. If you want to find out where you are as a leader, then take the temperature of your team. Ask yourself these questions:
· Are people avoiding me in the office?
· Is there increased conflict among the team?
· Are people leaving or disengaging?
If you answer more than one of those in the affirmative, then it’s a sure sign the office is running hot. That means it’s time to get out of your world and into theirs in order to get to know the people on your team better and build relationships. There’s a big difference between prowling the office like a predator, looking for any sign of weakness, and walking the halls like a mentor and friend. You can’t lead people if you can’t read people. It’s just a fact of leadership. Connection and engagement are crucial.
Step on the Scales
There are few things that are as cold and unfeeling as a scale. No matter how you step on it, a scale always gives you back a hard number, and you’re left to pick up the pieces! And yet scales give us a great benchmark for progress – they tell us where we stand and which direction we need to go. From time to time, if you want to assess your weight as a leader, ask yourself the following questions about your team:
· Do people come to me with problems and solutions?
· Do people show initiative and engagement?
· Do people produce at their highest level because of my confidence and encouragement?
If you can’t answer affirmatively to most of those questions, chances are your leadership is lightweight where it really matters. I always encourage putting a “10” on everyone’s head. Seeing the best in people and believing the best of people is the surest way to get the best from people.
Take a Stress Test
Have you ever been to the doctor for a stress test? They are usually recommended when the doctor suspects that you have something wrong with your heart or lungs. Essentially, you hop on a treadmill or a stationary bike and push yourself until the doctor says to stop. It’s not fun, I assure you – especially when you’re out of shape! But stress tests are extremely helpful in determining how well you are functioning at your core.
The same philosophy applies with your team. As a leader, you need to perform a stress test from time to time to make sure the heart of your team is healthy. This means assessing the intangibles of good leadership, those aspects that relate to mission and vision. You should ask yourself the following questions:
· Are people operating in their strength zones?
· Do people show that they understand and embrace the vision of the organization?
· Are people doing work they feel matters?
When your people are working with their heart and soul, your team is able to not only do more, they will do it better. The healthier the heart of a team, the more you can push that team to go farther, faster, and higher.
Sometimes, even the best leader needs a quick check up to make sure he or she is leading well. When you take time to assess where your team is – and make necessary adjustments – you increase your influence, and nowhere is your influence more important than with the people you lead. The more you’re willing to invest in them, value them, add value to them, and develop them, the greater your team will be.
What would you do to win?
Not too long after I graduated from college, I was invited back to my high school to play in an alumni basketball game. I was thrilled to be asked back, and as we were warming up before the game, I noticed that the player I’d been assigned to guard was a very quick point guard. As he zipped around with the ball, I realized he was faster than me – and I developed a simple, but less than ideal, strategy for victory.
The first time he tried to drive the ball to the hoop, I fouled him. Hard. The next trip down the floor, he tried to set up for an outside shot, and I fouled him. Hard. A few moments later, we both went to the floor for a loose ball, and I made sure I landed on top of him. Hard.
He’d finally had enough. He popped up off the ground, got in my face, and said, “You’re playing too hard! It’s just a game!”
To which I replied, “Okay. Then let me win.”
Suffice it to say, that young man didn’t become my friend that day. In fact, even though my team won that particular exhibition game, my actions were pretty immature. You see, I wanted a victory very badly. And while I achieved my goal – victory –I lost sight of what matters – people.
As a leader, you’re wired to win. You want to see your team succeed. You want to see your own career take off. Chances are, there are very few moments in the day when you’re not looking for some kind of competitive advantage.
But you should never sacrifice people to your desire to win. Because the plain fact of the matter is that you can’t win without others. You need people to reach your potential.
Last week I wrote about facing up to the challenge of leading up, of helping to lead your leader when needed. This week, I want to share my thoughts about learning to lead across. In my book, The 360° Leader, I dedicated an entire section to leading your peers, because getting people on your level to follow your lead can be at least as challenging as leading your leader. Today, I want to touch on just a few behaviors that can help you learn to lead your peers.
1. Let the Best Idea Win
I know: I just told a story about the lengths I went to as young man to make sure my team came out on top. Did I mention how immature that was? Winning may be the goal, but if your idea of winning is for someone else to always lose, you need to adopt a new definition.
There are times when your ideas, your thoughts, your agenda, aren’t actually the best of the bunch. Hard to believe, right? But the truth is, there are other people on your team who are just as sharp as you. That’s why they’re your peers!
So instead of always arguing for your idea, your opinion, your agenda, sit back and listen to the other ideas being shared. Really evaluate them and give them a fair shake. If you find one that is as good as – or better than – your idea, then say so. Let the idea that has the most merit win, even if it’s not your own. Your willingness to work with others will be noticed.
2. Be a Friend
I love the statement, “All things being equal, people will likely follow the person they like the most. All things being unequal, they definitely will.” It’s humorous, but it has a lot of truth to it. One of the easiest ways to develop influence with your peers is to be their friend. That doesn’t mean you ingratiate yourself to them with empty gestures or words; it means you make a sincere effort to become someone they like and trust.
How do you do that? First, listen. When you prove to be someone who genuinely listens to others, people will seek you out because everyone likes – and needs – a good listener. Second, find common ground outside of work. There is more to the people in your office than what goes on in the office. Find out about and take an interest in their lives. Third, once you’ve found common ground outside of work, make yourself available outside of work as well. True friendship doesn’t punch a clock.
Finally, if you want to be a friend, you should develop two things: a sense of humor and a reputation for honesty. To develop a sense of humor, learn to laugh first at yourself. As the saying goes: laugh, and the world laughs with you. To develop a reputation for honesty, tell the truth when others won’t. Some people will ply their peers with easy platitudes or comfortable half-truths, so having the guts to be compassionately candid will certainly set you apart. It will also make you someone others trust and respect.
3. Avoid Office Politics
Sometimes, politics is just dirty business. Gossip. Self-serving agendas. Petty squabbles. Turf wars. All of these behaviors are at the center of most office politics, and they only serve to do one thing: get you caught up in the muck.
Leadership is messy, but it doesn’t mean you have to sling the mud that gets you dirty. Let your integrity be your guide when it comes to intra-office disagreements, and demonstrate a higher standard for your peers to follow. When you keep the big picture in mind and work at bringing your peers together for the common good, you do more than distinguish yourself and gain credibility. You build the influence you need to lead.
4. Don’t Pretend You’re Perfect
Like everything else in leadership, it always comes back to who you are as a person. Your character, your integrity, and your willingness to be authentic will do more to win people to your cause than anything else you can do. Leadership among your peers has more to do with relationships than anything else, and relationships are established when people drop their pretenses and allow others to know them as they really are.
Of course, it helps if you know yourself first. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and quite often we’re blind to one, or the other, or both! Being able to see yourself with clarity helps you to live with sincerity; when you know your faults, you can admit them – and admit your need for others to help you with them. This draws people to you, because it proves you have something that everyone loves in a leader: humility.
If you want to see your team make winning a habit, you’re going to have to learn to lead your peers. Of all the lessons I learned from playing basketball, the one I’ll never forget is that the people you need the most are the people on the team with you. When everyone is on the court, hungry for a win, the temptation is to make the game all about you. But on the court or in the cubicle, the truth remains the same – you can’t win without others.
Imagine yourself inside a crowded movie theater. You’ve got your popcorn and soft drink, and you’ve settled into your seat to enjoy a new thriller. After the movie starts, you munch happily away as the story takes off and begins to build. Then, about halfway through the movie, the tension mounts. The main character keeps making all kinds of silly mistakes that no one with common sense would make.
Suddenly, as the hero reaches for a door you know he shouldn’t open, you can’t handle it anymore. Before you can think about it, you shout:
“DON’T GO IN THERE!”
Welcome to leading from the middle.
Over the next several posts, I’m going to share with you some insights on leading from the middle of an organization. Think of it as a refresher course on my book The 360° Leader.
This week, I want to talk with you about the challenge of leading up – of influencing the people above you in your organization. To begin with, let me remind you that everyone has influence; no matter who you are, no matter where you serve, no matter what you do, you have influence with the people around you. You build this influence with your character, your actions, and your willingness to add value to others.
Even though you may not have a position of influence, you are in position to influence. That makes you a leader.
But there may be times when you don’t feel particularly influential – times when you feel you’re just one part of a greater whole. These are times when you’re tempted to believe your voice doesn’t matter, your insights don’t count, your ideas aren’t welcomed at the table. You may even serve under a leader who doesn’t understand that the best teams find and develop leaders from within.
If you find yourself in such a spot, I want you to know something: you are still in a position to do much good for your organization.
Now this doesn’t mean you should just walk into your boss’s office and make a big scene. Nor do you need to go over your boss’s head to someone even higher on the org chart. It means that you can simply and effectively make a difference by learning to lead up. You can learn to lead your leader.
In The 360° Leader I dedicate an entire section to the challenges and principles of leading up. Many of them have to do with knowing yourself and making sure you are a person of character – a person worth following or listening to. When your character is solid and your work is likewise, then you have a great foundation for leading your leader effectively.
But the biggest struggle for most people when it comes to leading up is timing. Knowing when to push and when to pause is a big part of leading your leader well.
When to Push Forward
There will be times when it is necessary to approach your boss and push forward. It’s not uncommon to discover that you have information that your boss needs to know but doesn’t. Believe it or not, the view doesn’t necessarily get clearer the higher you go on the corporate ladder. When you find yourself seeing things your boss isn’t seeing, you usually need to speak up. My brother Larry always asked his staff to tell him when they saw either a great opportunity or a great problem, because Larry was aware that he wouldn’t always be in a position to see either.
Your boss may not be as upfront or open to feedback as my brother, but wise leaders want to know when they’re missing something they should be seeing. Think about your boss’s temperament and his or her perception of you; this will give you insight into how to best proceed when you sense that they’re missing a crucial part of the picture. And how you push makes a huge difference. If you sense that a direct statement won’t be received well, consider asking several specific questions. Often, the best way to influence someone is by softly nudging them to recognize something on their own.
Pushing is especially necessary when time is of the essence; there are occasions when you and the organization simply cannot afford to let your boss “figure things out” the hard way. At those times, you need to speak up and seize the moment.
When to Press Pause
Leadership isn’t always about pushing forward; many times, it’s necessary to press pause. When you’re learning to lead up, think of yourself as an organizational meteorologist; you need to become skilled at reading the atmosphere of the office!
Reading the atmosphere means paying attention to both other people and yourself. It’s easier to pay attention to others. For example, if your boss is shouting when you come in first thing in the morning, that isn’t the wisest time to pop into the office and deliver bad news or push a new idea. Likewise, if the rest of the team seems to be on edge or going through a tough time, you need to be sensitive to how that may impact your boss’s response to your suggestions.
But really, the most important person you need to read is yourself. When you’re thinking about leading up but aren’t sure if the timing is right, ask yourself these questions about your motives:
· Will this benefit everyone, or just me?
· Is my goal to communicate with my leader, or to coerce my leader into seeing things my way?
· Do I have “skin in the game,” or does my leader bear all the risk?
· Is the timing really right, or is it just right for me?
· Am I asking too much?
If the answers to your questions point toward you, then it’s a wise idea to hit the pause button and re-examine things. Take some time to regroup, to make sure your suggestion creates a win for your boss and the organization.
Leading up can seem like a big challenge, but it is possible. By examining yourself, your boss, and the timing, you can often discover a way to make a positive influence. Every organization needs people who are willing to use their influence and lead up when necessary. No leader, at any level, wants to be the poor soul who opens the door to face a monster – especially when someone could have warned them about what was on the other side! Don’t be afraid to speak up and speak out when necessary. Just make sure you’ve taken the time to assess whether you need to push forward or press pause.