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By Alec Talan
If you spend time working for different bosses, you’ll come to recognize the signs of a true leader.
Think about a standout teacher, mentor, or colleague whom you admire. Chances are the reason this person made such a lasting impact on your life wasn’t because of their job title. It was about how you felt when you were in the room with them. It was their enthusiasm toward you, their commitment to a quality outcome, and their investment in the people around them—all signs of a true leader.
If you spend enough time in enough different conference rooms, you’ll come to recognize that there is a distinct difference between truly transformational leaders and those in name and title only. A few common patterns tend to stand out and are worth highlighting should you ever find yourself wondering which kind of boss you are working with, or which kind you are yourself.
Planning vs. preparation
As the saying goes, no good plan survives contact with reality. On most important initiatives, there are a thousand uncertainties and unknowns. Navigating a team through those uncharted waters requires careful planning. But it is the true leaders who recognize that merely having a good plan is not enough.
Careful planning is a fundamentally different mindset than careful preparation. The former is focused on creating a good way to get from point A to point B, whereas the latter is obsessed with maximizing the number of ways to achieve the mission.
Leaders operate on a deeper level than merely creating and following a well-thought-out plan; they are, ultimately, purveyors of contingencies and options. If you accept up front that the plan can, and will, change multiple times, you prepare for that reality by identifying multiple paths to the goal and the inflection points where you’ll need to pivot. Being prepared to switch approaches without losing momentum is the key difference.
Look to the past two years of living in a pandemic as evidence of why this adaptive approach is so crucial. More leaders have emerged simply because of their determination to problem solve, evolve, and thrive, even when the big picture looked bleak. Risk-averse managers have had a much harder time adjusting to working in new ways and, thus, struggled to keep pace with those leaders who prepared to adapt and kept moving.
Growth mindset vs. fixed mindset
Psychologist Carol Dweck famously coined the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset.” In a nutshell, she concluded that a growth mindset is a belief that intelligence can be developed, whereas a fixed mindset concludes that intelligence is static.
Leaders are motivated by growth and innovation, so they recognize that their teams have the ability to evolve and grow within the organization. Leaders actively work to help their teams level up over the long term to become collectively stronger. And, they hold an inherent belief that their responsibility lies more in helping their teams operate with a growth mindset, rather than always “brute-forcing” their way through the immediate work.
For this reason, leaders aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves to protect their teams from the menial, administrative, or political distractions and give them the freedom and flexibility to experiment and develop new solutions. Ultimately, high-performing teams are not created through sweatshops, but through the 80/20 rule, where 20% of the time is allocated to individual growth goals and team innovation.
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Supervisors motivated purely by productivity, on the other hand, often cause their teams to stagnate because they view their team through a more fixed mindset lens: people are in their roles to do that specific job and that’s what they need to keep doing. This perspective is often followed by a tendency to double down on productivity and relentlessly optimize, diminishing returns be damned.
This lack of vision for individuals and their professional journeys creates a vicious cycle. It destroys passion, ambition, and trust, which decreases motivation, productivity, and team cohesion. Performance drops, and the corrective action to have people focus more and work harder only restarts the cycle. While this approach may often have short-term productivity gains, in the long term it becomes a structural shackle that weighs down team morale and effectiveness.
Knowing this, a leader will recognize that you have to trade short-term output to realize long-term value in the same way that sometimes you have to slow down to go faster.
Fostering relationships vs. protecting authority
Leaders leave a lasting imprint on their people because they take the time to foster authentic relationships and invest in others’ goals. They take the time to get to know everyone’s capabilities and understand not only how to best utilize their skill sets, but also how to best grow a person’s potential and inspire excellence.
But, if you’re operating from a fixed mindset, cultivating meaningful relationships is rarely a priority. When the goal is to keep people in their boxes, there is little room for encouraging aspirations. And without that personal connection to inspire, the only tool that is left is a reporting structure to require compliance. In this mode, management devolves from leadership to authority.
Beyond hurting performance, management through authority rather than relationships hurts innovation. Team members with brilliant new ideas will not speak up if they have learned that their supervisors are quick to shut down any ideas that aren’t their own or aren’t coming from the top. A leader will seek to foster a culture that encourages team members to develop and bring forward novel suggestions, and allow them to feel confident they will be heard by someone they authentically know and trust.
Relationships create networks of trust and respect, both of which are critical for healthy information flow and team dynamics. On the other hand, naked authority only breaks down trust and respect because it substitutes merit and outcomes with rules and status; the success of the supervisors is disconnected from the success of the teams.
One telltale sign that you are working with a trusted leader is the number of people on their team who have followed them from other departments, functions, even companies. People rarely uproot themselves to continue working with someone unless they have a deep professional relationship.
Issue management vs. blame assignment
Let’s face it. When you get a group of smart, opinionated people together to work on a high-stakes, complex problem, passions are sure to quickly flare and conflicts will arise.
Closely related—and equally important—is the fact that issues and problems will inevitably arise with any complex project. No one is perfect and mistakes happen; information is often incomplete and this sometimes leads to incorrect decisions. How the team lead manages such conflicts and issues is another telltale sign of their leadership style.
Seasoned leaders look beyond conflicts to root causes and address concerns head-on without hiding or obfuscating the underlying issue. They’ll often ask questions such as “How can I help?” or “What do you need from me?” Their focus is directed toward immediate mitigation and preventive actions to protect the team from being burdened by the same problem again.
It is a wholly different matter when an issue or conflict is met by management with suspicion and an inquisition to find the blameworthy. The language you’ll hear is often fundamentally different as well, where instead of questions about support, you hear things like “What are you doing about this?” or “Who is responsible for this?”
As the saying goes, with leadership the buck stops here. Good leaders fundamentally understand that any mistake is ultimately theirs to shoulder, and they do not look for scapegoats or engage in political gamesmanship at the expense of their team.
Driving success vs. avoiding failure
Leaders focus on achieving success while rule followers obsess about avoiding failure. While there are myriad ways you can fail, you only succeed by achieving your goals. Because leaders own that responsibility and do not play hot potato with the outcome, their team engagement style reflects this flexible mentality.
Leaders focus on the ultimate objectives of their team efforts, not the specific means to get there. It’s not the punch list of tasks that gets the job done, but the underlying work that the task list is supposed to help navigate. Accuracy and thoroughness are, of course, critical to success, but management is intended to help work get done, not create work for the sake of management.
Leaders evangelize a common vision and mission for why the work matters, what the ultimate goals are, and what good looks like. Their questions center around whether the team has everything it needs, about who is accountable for driving the outcomes, and whether those outcomes are of the highest quality.
Success frequently requires taking risks. Where a servant-leader will lean into uncertainty for the sake of the right outcomes, a self-interested supervisor will seek ways to limit their individual exposure at the expense of the collective outcome.
Leadership is an art with a distinct style
Leaders drive to thrive while bosses struggle to survive. Leaders emerge while bosses are appointed. A dozen more catchy slogans to follow.
Beyond the stereotypes and the hype, there is a common pattern across the different personalities, management styles, seniority, and experience that identify true leaders.
Leadership is a style on its own. Look around to see where you can spot it.
About the Author
Alec is the Director and General Counsel of Blue Skies Consulting, where he leads the West Coast practice and the Program Leadership and Digital Strategy service lines. ee all his articles and full bio on AllBusiness.com.
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