How you lead, and, more importantly, whether people follow, has more to do with who you are than your job title. Do you inspire others, or drag them down? Do you take ownership of your impact and make a difference, or do you leave that to someone else?
In the policy-driven hierarchy that defines life at a PSAP, it’s sometimes hard to see the power that one person has to change things for the better. The existing challenges oftentimes dampen any vision of possibility.
Your vision of what’s possible is the key. Without it, things have no chance of becoming better. When we take personal responsibility for “being the change we want to see,” as Mahatma Gandhi said, amazing things happen.
An inner journey
Leadership always begins with the self. There is a very long tradition, dating at least to the Ancient Greeks, imploring individuals to look inside. Socrates declared, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” while the Oracle at Delphi advised simply, “Know thyself.”
This perspective has been echoed in The Bible, in the principles of emotional intelligence, in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and countless other sources. Contemporary leadership philosopher, Warren Bennis, said, “Leaders must know themselves thoroughly before they can hope to lead others.”
Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of one of the best-selling leadership books of all time, The Leadership Challenge, capture the essence of effective leadership: “The instrument of leadership,” they write, “is the self, and mastery of the art of leadership comes from mastery of the self. It is about leading out of what is already in your soul. It’s about liberating the leader within you. It’s about setting yourself free.”
If you’re relying on books, articles, and other people to make you a leader, you’re looking too far. It’s an inside job. As Bennis said, you have to get yourself right before you can hope to lead others.
Leaders who are self-aware understand their true calling. Their leadership role is not for personal glory, nor is it to command, manipulate, and coerce others. The leader develops self- awareness and gets right with himself or herself, ultimately, to be of service to others.
In serving their personnel, leaders get what they need in return through the performance of the personnel, their loyalty, commitment, growth, and development. This is the essence of Servant Leadership.
It is the leader’s job to manage the development of their people: guiding, showing, interacting, engaging, nurturing. This is for the good of the organization as well as the individual. The best leaders eventually go a step farther and create new leaders out of their personnel.
Let’s go quickly through two very useful lists that will help you contemplate leadership. You can assess for yourself your performance level in each of these areas.
The first list is called Leadership Excellence. Essentially, this is a collection of leadership competencies, practices you need to develop continuously.
• Tone setting
• Coaching (feedback)
• Coaching (development)
• Decision making
• Courage and risk
• Relationships and power
• Innovation and change
You will notice that leadership competencies are not the kind of thing we turn on for work and turn off when we get home. They largely define who we are.
I’m going to guess you ran through that list pretty quickly. That’s one of the reasons all of the leadership books and articles you’ve read don’t have the impact they could – we go through them too quickly without understanding what they truly mean.
Look at that list again and ask yourself some things: What does each of these mean to me? How do they appear in my life? How good am I at putting them into practice? What are some examples of when I was really good at each one and when did I fall down on occasion? What can I do to improve in each area?
If you’re really courageous, ask people you work with or live with how good you are at practicing those things.
To see the real power of your personal leadership, look at that list again and think about parenting. If you have kids, you can look at it from the perspective of being a parent. If you don’t have kids, you can look at it from the perspective of having been a kid. Some of the names of the competencies may be more formal or sophisticated for leadership than ones we would use when we talk about parenting, but the idea is the same.
See what’s happening here? Leadership is not just about work and it’s not just about being at the top of an organization. It’s about leading people so that they can become their best. Sounds a lot like parenting.
The actor Michael J. Fox made a great comment that can apply equally well to leadership and parenting: “I have to accept the idea that what I do may not affect me in my time. And so my responsibility is greater than to myself. And there’s great joy in that on a selfish level.” It’s about self and others. We develop our selves so that we can give to others. The result is we receive in return. The secret of leadership is you have to give first before you receive.
From this list, it is easy to see that leadership is a way of being.
The second list speaks to characteristics of effective leaders:
• Able to delegate
• Good communicator
• Has a sense of humor
• Has a positive attitude
• Able to inspire
These characteristics form the foundation of a leader that makes the first list possible. Looking at the second list again, it’s obvious how your leadership extends beyond work. To varying degrees, these characteristics are needed in virtually all of your relationships in every aspect of your life. That’s personal leadership. It shows itself in how you interact with the world.
If it’s not clear to you yet, let’s spell it out: you are already a leader. You may not know it. You may not think so. You may not feel it. But you are. If you thought you couldn’t be a leader or thought the responsibility was too great, take a look at your life. You’ve been doing it day in and day out for years.
Are you in a relationship? Have kids? Involved in social organizations like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or your community religious group? Do you teach? Are you an employee? A friend? These are just some of the numerous ways in which your leadership comes out. Don’t discount it. That’s real leadership. Personal leadership is not defined by your paycheck, whether you have a membership at the country club, or the position you hold. It’s an attitude about self and the people around you.
You could come up with any list you want. Just as you could own 20 books on dieting and personal finances, you could easily come up with 20 different lists of competencies for leadership excellence as well as characteristics of effective leaders. You could debate exactly which characteristics and competencies are more important than others.
All too often, however, discussions like that end up in splitting hairs and creating new and fancier labels and buzzwords for things we’ve known for 20 centuries. Don’t waste a lot of time trying to reinvent the wheel. The answers you’re seeking are already inside you.
We don’t need any more classes talking about what leadership is; we need classes showing people how to tap into it and live it on a daily basis.
Why many leaders are ineffective
So, why is it that so many leaders are ineffective?
There are a lot of reasons, but for purposes of this discussion, we could divide leadership styles into two simplified forms: one that is ego- driven and one that is trust-driven.
The ego-driven brand of leadership is focused on, and frequently obsessed by, power and control. This kind of leader dominates people and bulldozes through situations with a “because I said so” attitude. Such leaders are often self-centered and take credit for most things.
They have little regard for those they should be serving and are uninterested in praising or otherwise nurturing their people. Ego-driven leaders are less concerned about effective and inclusive communication, providing feedback, or nurturing their personnel.
Not surprisingly, these leaders often lack the integrity and character needed to build effective relationships and cultivate loyal staff. They use their personnel as pawns in a power game and will dispense with them as needed. Personnel are treated with a certain amount of contempt.
Trust-driven leadership is genuine and authentic, having the good of the organization as its highest priority.
The trust form of leadership is characterized by integrity and character. It is leadership doing the right thing. Frequently, this is accompanied by openness and transparency in operating style. The leadership shares as much information as possible with personnel, facilitating as much buy-in as possible by the staff.
Trust-driven leadership is genuine and authentic, having the good of the organization as its highest priority. This generates loyalty, understanding, and commitment.
The key to becoming an effective leader
The competencies of leadership excellence and the characteristics of leaders are a large part of what makes an effective leader. Without developing those, your leadership capabilities will fall short in whatever arena you’re working. They’re necessary but not enough.
One of the central questions the people you lead want to know is, “Where are you taking us?” They want to know that the destination is clear and the trip is worth taking. They want to be inspired. They want to follow someone that has their best interests at heart and those of the organization.
You need to create a Vision. This is what leadership guru John Maxwell calls the indispensable quality of leadership.
It is your main task to clearly articulate that Vision, capturing the imagination of your people, encouraging them to go along with you, and giving them the tools to do it.
Ideally, your people are part of the process of defining and developing the vision, so it becomes theirs, not just the implementation of the leader’s ideas. The inclusion of their ideas will help improve your vision and create more commitment and loyalty among staff.
In the book, Lessons From the Top: The Search for America’s Best Business Leaders, Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, made the following observation: “I think it’s very difficult to lead today when people are not really truly participating in the decision. You won’t be able to attract and retain great people if they don’t feel like they are part of the authorship of the strategy and the authorship of the really critical issues. If you don’t give people an opportunity to really be engaged, they won’t stay.”
Extensive research and experience have shown repeatedly that salary and work conditions are important, but they aren’t the primary motivators of people. Personnel want to feel part of something bigger than themselves that is meaningful and significant. Your Vision is the emotional catalyst for your people to get on board.
Realize it or not, your position of leadership matters. People are waiting to follow you. Do you have a vision in place? Do you know where you’re headed? Are you inspiring others to take the trip with you?
About the Author:
Adam Timm is the author of the #1 bestselling book, Stress Is Optional! How to Kick the Habit, and the cofounder of The Healthy Dispatcher, a law enforcement training company that offers stress resilience, communication and leadership classes designed for Emergency Dispatchers.
A 9-1-1 telecommunicator for over a decade, he brings his stories from the frontline into his writings and classes. His second book, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, is out now.