I recently hit a milestone birthday and changed jobs within a few days of each other. As a contemplative sort, either of these events would trigger a degree of self-reflection so combined, they were quite a powerful pair.
I’ve written before about what I consider to be my slightly odd career path and how I started to recognise my strengths in order to find my niche.
Looking back on my career so far there have been some obvious inflection points. Those times when it was necessary to absorb uncertainty, move into “The Beyond” and grow. Most of these times, I’m happy to say, I was successful. And those times were always accompanied by great leaders.
Great leaders come with a grab bag of admirable qualities but a major one for me at least—which I think is often underrated—is the ability to trust.
An ability to trust indicates courage. A capacity to navigate uncertainty and allow others to contribute without resorting to outmoded command and control tactics. It begets autonomy; allows exploration, creative thinking and enables people to find new ways to tackle challenges.
I’ve often found that great leaders will display more faith in you than you might yourself. This in turn can inspire you to stretch and move into new territories—and to do so without worrying about what might happen if things don’t work out.
The ability to move beyond fear is so important for growth and innovation. Great leaders I’ve seen have been able to dispel the fear which often comes with uncertainty. Rather than dwelling on possible negative outcomes, focusing on opportunity and channeling energy towards creative problem solving—and trusting their people to deliver.
I saw a great quote by Joi Ito which I think perfectly encapsulates this: “Want to increase innovation? Lower the cost of failure”. The role of leaders in facilitating a collective letting go of fear at an organisational level cannot be overstated but is only possible through individual courage and trust.
In so much of the employee engagement data I have poured over, the explicit and implicit role of leaders in fostering culture and employee engagement is unavoidable. The role of leadership is present across any number of engagement dimensions but how they ‘show up’, how their behaviour aligns with organisational values and the types of relationships they create are crucial.
In fact, I think a simple but powerful indicator of leadership quality is the degree to which a leader listens and responds to engagement data—and feedback more broadly. The best leaders I’ve seen encourage and welcome it, embedding feedback into an ongoing dialogue, rather than limiting the ‘engagement conversation’ to their periodic employee satisfaction surveys.
In these instances, engagement feedback becomes a useful input, augmenting leaders’ first-hand experiences, rather than being the sole source of people insight. Great leaders—in trusting their people—also give credence to the issues raised, exploring rather than dismissing the points which don’t fit with their own worldview.
Great leaders don’t just focus on the big-ticket items, which may be outside of their control—though it might be easier to concentrate the team’s attention on these in order to excuse a lack of responsive action. There can be as much or more reward from focusing efforts on small, practical things which compound to make meaningful positive change over time.
Great leaders will also close the loop—not just on the things which have been agreed as focus areas but also the things which it’s been decided not to focus on. This ensures both that people don’t feel their feedback has gone into a black hole but also shows that there is conscious decision making at play.
It’s also clear from much of the people engagement feedback that I’ve reviewed that flexibility is becoming increasingly important and to some degree, expected in the modern workplace. But it’s one thing having the tools and technology to be able to do work from anywhere or at any time and another to have the blessing of your leader to utilise them.
The old style, command and control leader might struggle with the concept that their people can be equally productive and effective (if not more so) while out of their line of sight. Which, if you’re feeling facetious, can beg the question: if you don’t trust your people, why did you hire them?
For many, trust has to first be earned but with great leaders, it is the default. It is of course up to the individual to make good on that trust but in my experience, this is much more likely if a strong, two-way relationship is in effect.
How easy it is to create such a relationship from a position of fear and distrust probably doesn’t require much debate. I feel very fortunate to have been granted autonomy and the time and space to grow at the most important turning points of my career.