At a time when corporations are making headlines for the wrong reasons—toxic culture chief among them—and employee burnout is on the rise, people are looking to their leadership to do better, act with greater integrity, and prove that they are worth following. But cultivating that loyalty, especially among a scattered workforce and during a time of economic uncertainty, has never been more challenging, nor more vital to success.
Whether you’re responsible for a staff of five or five hundred, there are a few fundamental truths that should govern your actions and decisions. We tend to think of “hallmarks” of leadership as characteristics or attributes that are universally expected, but that’s a faulty measuring stick and trying to live up to those standards will, more often than not, lead to failure.
First and foremost, leadership is a feeling; there is no one attribute that dictates the capacity for great leadership; it is emotional and dynamic, changing from person to person. Ultimately, a good leader is someone who makes the people around them better, in each unique and individual way.
At its core, leadership is subjective and something that is bestowed upon you, and understanding what leadership is not might be even more important than grasping what it is. It is NOT a position, it is NOT determined by a board vote or an appointment process, and it is NOT carte blanche permission to do anything you want without impunity. It comes down to how you evoke the feeling in other people that you can be a leader and how you inspire or encourage them to be their best that counts.
While defining leadership may be futile, identifying the actions that lead to more effective leadership is not. Here are a few key ways that you can maximize your effectiveness as a leader and start building the trust with your workforce that will help you come out on top.
1. Be the example. Words are just words until someone takes action, and that person had better be you. The number one mistake I see organizations making is making blanket statements about changes to their culture and expecting employees to act accordingly. Telling someone that there will be consequences for behavior that goes against a code of conduct is simple, but taking actions against senior management for breaking that code and making that decision transparent for employees to see is much harder. Good leaders and bad leaders have something in common: everyone looks to them to set the example for acceptable behavior and will engage—or disengage—as a result of their actions. No matter what situations you find yourself in, you must always be asking yourself, “What would I do if I knew everyone was watching and would follow suit?” They are, and they will, so act accordingly.
2. Listen to your people and understand their needs. It seems obvious that giving your employees what they want and need maximizes effectiveness, but there is often a major disconnect between the people at the top and those who work for them. There’s a trend in corporate America towards prioritizing mental health, and there’s no denying that this is a positive step forward. But if you’re giving your employees access to free counseling or a meditation app when what they need is better healthcare benefits or flexible scheduling to make sure their kids have a ride home from school, you’re missing the point and losing their trust. It’s easy to take corporate buzzwords like mental health or social action and find a way for your company to address them, and much harder to tune into the reality of your employees and offer them the help they need. That challenge is the difference between being a figurehead and a leader, so lean into the hard parts and listen before you act.
3. Recognize that culture is subjective, dynamic and can’t be manifested into existence by sheer willpower. There’s no getting around it: positive corporate culture is subjective and there is no easy checklist to get from A to B. Anyone who says they can come in and fix your culture is full of it, because you have to co-create your company’s culture with your workforce. It will take a lot of work and a lot of time because we are naturally resistant to change. To be effective, you have to be very visible as the leader of that change and prepared to say the same thing to many different people over and over until it sticks.
In today’s world, your job is that much harder because remote workers have one point of access to the company culture: their manager. It’s essential to talk to that person or persons and understand their motivation to create a good culture, as well as to sell the manager on how doing so will make their job easier. Getting people on board is the only way to shift company culture, and it’s more of a long game than a quick scrimmage. Commit to doing the work and you’ll see the results are worth the effort.
Say this with me: I am only as effective as the people who follow me. Without that loyalty, you will not succeed, and getting to a place of mutual trust and respect is a long-term process. There are no true hallmarks of a good leader, but there are plenty that can be associated with bad ones. It’s a grind to differentiate yourself in this way, and it’s necessary to keep the goal of effective leadership top of mind every single day, no matter what. Accept the challenge and you’ll reap the rewards in spades. Neglect the imperative to earn your place as a leader, and all you’ll have to show for your efforts is a fancy nameplate and an empty corporate account. It’s your choice, so choose wisely.