Leadership: Inspired by an Unexpected Gift

Isn’t it wonderful when you receive a gift that you weren’t expecting?

This past New Year’s Eve, I received a gift. One that was completely unexpected. A gift that made me realize the sincere professional appreciation held by a woman I admire and respect.

Here’s the scoop. After returning from a wonderful Christmas spent with family, I reconnected to my work email and was greeted with surprising words from one of my long-term clients:

“Your bonus should have hit your bank by now. I hope you know how much you are appreciated.”

“A what?” I thought to myself.

I racked my brain while checking our email, chat, and text logs for some discussion of this “bonus” I clearly must have forgotten about. Some metric I must have met. Or a goal I helped achieve for her business.

Nope, no discussion. No mention of any prerequisites. Nothing at all. She had sent the gift just…because?

(As an aside, I’ll note that we’ve known each other for nearly six years. She started as my manager at a former employer for four years. Then she started her own business and employed me for one year. And finally, she became my client when I founded my own venture, Write Precisely, early last year.)

Before I even bothered checking my account (because the amount was irrelevant), I hit the Reply button quicker than I ever had and poured out a wholehearted “thank you” response. I also noted to myself to follow up with something more significant the next time I met with her.

The feeling of gratitude I experienced in that moment of surprise is still with me a month later. And over the last few weeks, my subconscious has (apparently) been reviewing the six-year tenure of our professional relationship, analyzing her past acts and conversations with me, as well as her former and current employees.

The result of my subconscious analysis was that I deemed her to be a leader. Not just a manager, but a leader — which is why she’s long had my professional respect. (She also has my personal respect, but that’s a whole other story.)

In making this determination, I sat down and consciously thought about the root elements that made her such a valiant figure to garner my respect (which isn’t easily gained by the way). Those thoughts are what I’m sharing in this post, as I believe an everyday perspective on leadership can be just as telling as one gleaned from the heights of well-known enterprises and business figures.

So while Fortune 500 CEOs are often cited as sources for leadership emulation, here’s what I’ve observed as great leadership characteristics — inspired by a leader a little more “close to home.”

A Leader Shows Appreciation

From a fundamental perspective, for a leader to lead, she must have two things: A vision and followers. The vision is what she has created or adopted and is striving toward. The followers are for achieving that vision.

This is because an effective leader understands that, to reach her vision, she needs help. And since the context of this post is business, help comes in the form of employees or organizational contributors.

As a manager, employees will carry out the duties you assign them. But simply employing someone does not mean they will want to help you achieve your vision. This requires being a leader.

To be a leader, you must show appreciation for the efforts of your contributors. And that appreciation must be sincere and fully communicated to each one on your team regularly. (By fully communicated, I mean don’t assume they “already know” they’re appreciated; show them!)

This goes beyond compensation, since many confuse being paid with being appreciated. But these are not the same. Compensation for services rendered is merely an equal business exchange; nothing more.

Thus, showing appreciation moves past this exchange so that you are actually giving something. In practical terms, this may mean providing positive commentary on finished work, praising them in public, giving them extra vacation time, or simply saying thank you.

In this act, employees naturally tend to become your followers, your supporters. I say naturally because of the law of reciprocity, which is a state of mutual dependence or influence. As stated in a paper covering management research on reciprocity published in the BuR Business Research Journal:

“Reciprocity is the basis of all social relations.”

In this business social relation, you giving more to your employees than just a paycheck means they will naturally want to reciprocate by giving more than just the services they were hired to perform.

Showing appreciation is a leadership characteristic that inspires contributors to help you reach your vision. My manager-turned-client has done this in numerous ways over the years (most recently with her unexpected gift and message), which is why I’ve continually worked to help her achieve her vision, even now.

A Leader Empowers

I bet you wouldn’t be surprised at how much doesn’t get accomplished in many organizations because of a lack of power to do so. Often it’s not for a lack of desire to reach a goal or tackle a complex task, but because of organizational constraints.

Sometimes it’s seemingly endless approvals that are needed. Or maybe there’s a lack of resources. Still other times contributors may just be demoralized or unmotivated.

Whatever the case, a leader moves mountains to keep organizational constraints from hindering contributors’ productivity, progress, and results. Whereas a manager may focus solely on the budget and organizational “checklist,” the leader focuses on how best to provide contributors with what they need to achieve the vision.

There were several times when I (and others) told my manager-turned-client about needing something for a client project and, without skipping a beat, was told to get it, noting she’d address any administrative burdens. Acts like these empowered us in our work, as well as ensured our client projects kept up momentum.

She empowered us through her words, but more importantly, through her actions by delivering on her promise and taking on those burdens. Her words and actions supported each other, furthering my respect.

A Leader Acts as a Partner

Management is intrinsically hierarchical, meaning a manager is above one or more people — his subordinates — and they are (logically) below the manager. While this may be a historic organizational truth, and many managers may internalize and externally exhibit such a belief, this does not translate into effective leadership.

In contrast, a leader holds quite a different belief. Despite any organizational infrastructure in place that technically places him above others, a leader essentially views every contributor to his vision as equals, as partners.

Recalling that a leader needs help in reaching his vision, he understands that everyone plays their part, helping in their own way as part of a collaboration. To look down on contributors, to treat them as less important simply because they are below him on the org chart, communicates that their contributions are less important.

This is the absolute wrong message to convey.

To lead effectively, a leader must ensure his followers are confident in the importance of their efforts and contributions to the organization and his vision.

If viewing contributors as equals is the start, then treating them as equals naturally follows, with partnership as the goal.

A Leader Listens More (and Talks Less)

The thing about talking is that you’re sending information, providing your thoughts, your observations, and your opinions to others. That can only do so much for you and the ones hearing it.

It’s only when you listen that you receive information.

And receiving information is the only way you learn and improve; otherwise, when you do talk, you’ll have nothing else to add beyond what you previously voiced.

In addition to learning and improving, listening shows interest and engages contributors. In a scholarly paper on servant leadership published in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal, authors Russell and Stone paraphrase the importance of listening in leadership from several academic sources:

“Listening is a critical way leaders demonstrate respect and appreciation of others.”

I can attest to this. Almost every discussion I’ve had with my manager-turned-client has started with her saying, “Tell me what’s going on in your world.

This could be anything from a status update on a client project to what I did over the weekend. The point here is that she always made sure to concern herself with me before expecting concern for her.

And every time we reached the switching point to discuss what she needed, I was intently focused and ready to help however I could. (Again, reciprocity.)

This always reminded me that listening goes a much longer way than talking. Great leaders surely recognize this fact.

Connecting the Pieces

If you analyze these leadership characteristics, you’ll notice a common theme:

Leaders focus more on others than on themselves.

“Me, me, me” leaders are sure to be stuck trying to achieve their vision with an organization full of check cashers or, perhaps worse, trying to achieve it alone.

To avoid this, leaders must instill these characteristics in their everyday outlook to engage contributors selflessly; in this manner, leaders can hone the ability to inspire their followers to help achieve their vision.

My manager-turned-client exhibits all of these characteristics (and likely more), which is why I classify her as a leader and why she inspired this post.

And with 90% of Americans believing our nation is facing a “crisis of leadership,” I’m comforted in knowing there’s a great leader just a phone call or email away.

What are some leadership characteristics you believe make a great leader, and what impact do you believe they have on an organization and its contributors? Share in the comments section below.

Bonus: SlideShare!

About the Author

Brandon Hastings is a business writing consultant and founder of Write Precisely, a solo business venture helping professionals and businesses communicate their expertise purposefully, practically, and precisely.

He believes that proving your expertise requires evidence, which he helps you craft with purpose.

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Originally published at writeprecisely.com on January 30, 2016.