Management books take up hundreds of pages and thousands of words building a case with which to support the author’s hypothesis. There’s an enormous amount of padding out of case studies and other people’s research involved. Dry academic subjects are enlivened with witty prose. You often reach the end and think “Damn right! But didn’t we already know that?”
And you know what? You’re right. We do know this stuff. Intuitively. But it’s conditioned out of us. The more we progress, the more responsibility and accountability we take and are given the more we unlearn the simple truths about being an effective leader of people. Ever wondered why CEOs invite other people to the annual conference to offer motivational speeches? Why those same CEOs are not motivational and inspiring enough in and of themselves? It’s because they fail to consistently demonstrate the most simple principles of leadership.
All of those books lining executive bookshelves are revealing, in a very roundabout way, essential truths we forget to apply at work. In my opinion their collected wisdom (such as it is) can be distilled down into just 25 words.
#1 – Listen – And it’s not just about waiting your turn to have your say. Really listen. Listen to understand. Apply no filters.
#2 – Include – Screw surveys. If difficult decisions need to be made, treat them like adults and tell them what’s going on and why. Celebrate success with them. They made you.
#3 – Ask them – You. Do. Not. Have. All. The. Answers. And you never will. Ever.
#4 – Be clear – When you communicate with the people you work with, opacity is not a desirable trait. People might write on their CVs and in job descriptions “comfortable with ambiguity” but there is no reason whatsoever to leave what you say open to interpretation.
#5 – Get out of the way – Set goals, tasks and expectations. Then get the hell out of the way and leave them to do it. If you do so having applied #4, they’ll have no problems.
#6 – Stay out of the way – If you are spending your time as a leader constantly checking back on how they are getting on and disrupting their focus, you are failing as a leader. Getting, and staying, out of the way is one of the hardest disciplines to master but master it you must if you are going to be a leader rather than a manager.
#7 – Follow through – Make meetings on time. Call people back. Promise something? Do it. Feedback? Reflect by all means but give it promptly.
#8 – Trust them – Every act you undertake as a leader, your every behaviour, will be a measure of how much trust you have in your colleagues. Numbers #1 thru #6 require you to trust them. Do them right and they’ll trust you. Miss #7 off and you’ll undo everything else you get right.
#9 – Have their backs – You want them to be agile, creative and innovative. Mistakes will happen. The way you act when they do will define your leadership. Back them to recover and learn. It’s quicker, cheaper and easier to manage by exception.
#10 – Be present – Meet your people commitments. Make and start meetings on time. Make time and space for team and individual communication. Put aside personal feelings about personality to seek people-centred solutions. Delegate appropriately and without opacity. Give space for individual creativity or innovation and spare blushes at glorious failure. By your presence define a culture that respects individual and team contribution. Give constructive feedback in a timely manner. Communicate targets with clarity. Pay attention to the whole person, not just outputs.
People are messy. Complicated, contradictory, contrary and confusing. You can only see them fully by being present. An impatient, invisible, irascible manager does not see people. They merely see obstacles to the imposition of their will or that of the organisation. They do not hear the nuance of what people are telling them. They fail the business and the people who make it function and who deliver profitability.
So, there you have it. 25 words. You’ll forget them by the end of the day and you’ll pick up the latest tome from Gladwell at the airport and wrestle on the plane home with how on earth to apply the lessons back in the real world when all you need are those 25 words.