I was recently accepted into a Leadership program and attended a retreat this weekend. The Executive Director of the organization closed out a fantastic retreat by encouraging us to think about the secret sauce to what made our experience special. I began to think about my cumulative experience as a leader in these terms and wondered about the key ingredients to effective leadership. Leadership is complicated because people are complicated. Most importantly, effective leadership in one situation may or may not translate into another.
We spent a significant amount of time learning about our own personality preferences and the others in our class. We quickly realized a great variation in our personalities and thus leadership styles. During a ropes course, it became evident that every leader utilized a unique approach and effectiveness was determined more by the team dynamic than the style of the leader. I believe that there are three elements that are truly at least part of this secret sauce of effective leadership:
It is difficult to be vulnerable and certainly more difficult for some than others. Truthfully, we aren’t very good at pretending to be somebody else and everyone else sees through it. Trust is a common topic when studying effective leadership and I agree that it is critical. Trust is only possible when everyone including the leader is willing to drop their guard. We learn early in life to be guarded in order to protect ourselves from harm or ridicule.
This protective shield and desire to hide our “real self” damages our relationships with spouses, children, friends, coworkers, and those that we lead. No one will trust someone that comes across as guarded and not authentic. Admit your flaws instead of hiding them and watch what it does for the effectiveness of your team. Lastly, make time for real conversation and learn about each other as human beings and have fun together. Learning to have fun together will pay huge dividends to the effectiveness of a team.
Human beings want to feel excited and inspired. No matter our personality type, we want to feel like our lives make a difference. In fact, many people suffering from depression have lost this sense of purpose and no longer feel that their life matters. I believe the leader should be the “Chief Inspiration Officer” of the group or organization. The leader doesn’t have to have all the answers, but the leader must have the passion to create and maintain passion for the work. We all know that a fire can be extinguished unless it is tended and fed. Likewise, we must make sure we feed the passion of those that we lead. Passion is directly tied to empathy. It is difficult to become truly passionate about a cause or task until you understand the impact on real people. Simply put, you won’t know if you are passionate about literacy until you meet and spend time with a student or students who cannot read.
Failure isn’t fun, but it is vital because it is life’s most effective teacher. I encourage you to reflect back on the most powerful lessons you have learned in your life. I’d be willing to bet that failure played a key role. Teams need to fail early in order to learn and improve processes and communication. I’ve heard the notion of failing to learn challenged by the example of an airline pilot. For example, the pilot cannot afford to make certain mistakes when we are flying from Atlanta to Los Angeles. It is critical that we remember that it is likely the pilot failed many times in a simulator early in his or her training and learned from these mistakes. Failing early allows the pilot the safety net he needs to make his mistakes. We must create these safety nets by not asking a newly formed team to complete a task where failure isn’t an option.
When we combine authenticity, passion, and failure I believe we are well on our way to the secret sauce of leadership. I encourage you to reflect on yourself as a leader and the effectiveness of your team. Improvement is always possible, but it always begins with a look in the mirror and a simple step. Keep yourself inspired and seek to be the Chief Inspiration Officer for those that you lead.