I’ve been leading, mentoring, and growing teams since 2000, at small companies and multinationals, in various industries, with different levels of process maturity, both inside and outside the US.
And I recently had the good fortune to work for a company that values and develops leaders in an overt way, through focused leadership training and coaching — offsite and away from the daily grind of work.
One course focused on authenticity as a leader: you need to show up as you, and want to be doing what you are doing. If you don’t, then change because you want to. That led me to to think deeply about what is important to me as a leader, and which leadership qualities have been the most effective for motivating, retaining, and optimizing teams.
After much personal reflection and thinking about the leaders I admire, two areas emerged: 1) Empathy— building connection with people as humans, and 2) Critical Thinking— helping people grow and have an impact. Without connection and empathy, people feel isolated and motivation wanes. Without focusing on growth and impact, people and businesses stagnate. The best leaders achieve a harmonious balance, but it’s hard to show up as and empathetic human while driving high effectiveness.
I’ve found some specific behaviors that channel empathy and critical thinking, so teams can achieve their best and feel supported:
- Connect personally: we are humans, we are diverse, our lives are complex. We are people first and workers second. Understanding the uniqueness of team members and coworkers, and connecting with them at a human level drives inclusiveness.
- Inspire with purpose & context: This is not just the “why”, but connecting the dots for people between how their contribution and impact supports the overall initiatives, goals, and mission of our group / company. Being as transparent as possible about limitations and challenges is critical: we’re all in this together. This deepens engagement.
- Coach rather than direct: GE’s Crotonville leadership center teaches an amazing coaching approach called Inside Out: more often than not, people know the solution to their own problems, and just need a guide to help bring it out. Obviously the development level of the person and the complexity of the situation are factors, but a great coach always enables and empowers.
- Give recognition: support, unblock, and get out of the way of the people doing the great work on the team. Give them public praise for their accomplishments, even when they are not in the room. This builds equity & trust.
- Create a growth mindset: we are running a business and need to be driven towards optimization and operational excellence. This isn’t a draconian top-down message, but a hopeful growth-oriented ethic: let’s get better at what we do, every day. This ensures highly effective & accountable teams.
It can be overwhelming to learn and embody all of the great work and hundreds of books published on what it means to be an excellent leader. But in the end, leadership is simply a responsibility to your team and the organization, that is based on trust and impact. Empathy and critical thinking is the core of what we should strive to embody as leaders and look for in others.