09 Apr

You Can’t Lead What You Don’t Know

In a business environment—particularly in the borderline paranoia that seems to have grown out of the “Me Too” movement—leaders are encouraged to maintain a strong professional line between themselves and the people below them. Business is business, and there’s no room there for personal relationships, right?

As it turns out, that isn’t exactly the case. These days, more and more leaders are seeing that just the opposite is true: emotionally connecting with your team is more effective than simply barking orders.

This is not an entirely new concept: for example, much has been written about the authoritarian leadership of the late Steve Jobs. He was known for his strong belief in informal communication. At both Pixar and Apple, he actively encouraged casual conversations between employees, even going so far as locating coffee machines, postal boxes and bathrooms centrally in the office.

According to director Brad Bird, Steve realized that “…when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen.” That’s leadership…it’s just not always the first image we think of when we talk about leading.

Ask any recognized leader about the top teamwork skills needed for the modern business world, and you’ll typically get answers like focus, drive, and the ability to delegate. What you’ll hear much less frequently are things like “Willingness to treat people as people, not just a resource.”

But research has shown that the human aspect of leadership is necessary and highly effective. It is the difference between what has been called “transactional” leadership and a style that tries to be transformational. Let’s look at the two of them more closely.

Transactional Leading

Traditional leadership is based on action and reward. A contractual negotiation process that starts with the initial job offer letter and continues until the employee leaves (and in the case of non-compete clauses, it goes on after that.)

This type of transactional leadership is obsessed with measurable metrics that force people into a ranking system based on the lowest common denominator: people become objectives, performance targets, and checklists. It is unquestionably effective in a measurable sense, but what often happens is that the metrics are lowered to fit performance: if no one can make the grade, then obviously the bar is set too high.

Or is it? The inherent stumbling block with any negotiation is that it leaves little incentive to perform beyond the deal: if the deal is “I give you A, you give me B,” why would I bother trying to give you A+C (unless, of course, it was a pre-emptive bargaining move to hopefully acquire B+D)? With transactional leadership, leaders get what they pay for, no more.

Transformational Leading

Transformational leadership, on the other hand, seeks to develop people, helping them to reach their own potential. There are no artificial, universally applied limits: the parameters are built around the individual. This style allows (and encourages) team members to take initiative, even with the potential of failing. This is how we grow.

The first argument here is always “But if I’m not treating everyone exactly the same, how do I know I am treating them fairly?” In the abstract, the question is meaningless—just ask any parent. It is quite possible to be fair to all of our children yet not treat them exactly the same. The end goal is to produce the most capable individual we can—both in leading and in childrearing.

Meaningful or not, however, the question persists, and it usually comes from legal advisors. Here the goal is less the development of better workers, and more about providing a framework that can be pointed to if an employee cries “Unfair!” This is an unfortunate reality of the world we live in.

Traversing a Mine Field

Legal landmines aside, a leadership that seeks to transform people is far more effective in times of change and insecurity, such as scaling up or down. The key is individual consideration: if you want people to perform, you have to be connected to them…and if you don’t know them, this isn’t possible.

Human nature tells us to not trust leaders who are elitist, aloof, or even just shy: anything that labels you unsociable. Of course, just as in parenting, there are certain roles that only you as a leader can perform. At the same time, if you don’t pay attention to people, you’ll be less trusted, and that affects the performance of the team as a whole.

Despite what the consultants would have us believe, leadership is seldom if ever best expressed through “sticks or carrots”; rallying cries, motivational speeches, or competitive reward programs tend to backfire more often than leaders acknowledge. Simple courtesy, respect, and genuine interest in people, however, are powerful elements of an engaged organization.

What we are learning is that leadership is less about position or title, and more about working with and influencing others. Any leader must have technical knowledge; the truest leaders also understand human dynamics.