Getting Real about Leadership

September 9, 2014
by Bill Treasurer

There are some differences between the leadership theories and ideals that you learn in college or graduate school and the actual practice of leading in the workplace. In graduate school, I learned that you should flex your leadership style according to the developmental level of your employees. In the workplace I learned that doing that is not easy or realistic. In graduate school I was taught that leadership spread among everyone on the team. At work I learned that when everyone is tasked with leading, no one really does. In graduate school I learned that hierarchy is bad. In the workplace I learned that hierarchy is bad indeed…but that it isn't going away.

College and graduate school were useful because they exposed me to the multidimensional nature of leadership, and to many leadership models and theories. But that knowledge came with a price: a deep sense of righteousness about how others should lead.

It didn't take long for the workplace to school me differently. Theories and models will only take you so far. What matters most is real, practical, and hands-on experience. The best way to learn about leadership is by actually leading others, not reading about it in a textbook. Leaders lead.

Here are some simple but unconventional leadership lessons that I wish my graduate school professors had taught me about leading:

  • Remember Rule #1: Always keep the best days of the people you're leading in front of them. Focus on looming achievements on the horizon, not the glory days of the past.
  • Don't Motivate with Fear: Fear is a crappy long-term motivator. You might get a short-term bump in performance, but you'll get a dramatic drop in loyalty. Don't use fear to motivate people. Fear is cheap leadership.
  • Give People Opportunities: People will move mountains for you if in exchange for doing so they grow and develop. Benjamin Disraeli was right, "Opportunity is more powerful even than conquerors and prophets."
  • Caring Matters: Get to know the career desires, goals, and aspirations of each of your people. When you know those things, you'll care about them. And once you care about them, they'll be loyal to you.
  • Don't Accept Comfort: People grow and develop in a zone of discomfort, not comfort. Task people with stretch assignments that cause them to grow, and make them a tad uncomfortable.
  • Everyone Matters: It's tempting to only devote time with the folks who are just like you. But if you only hang with your tribe (e.g., gender, ethnicity, age-bracket, etc.) you'll miss out on rich learning opportunities. Leaders should go out of their way to experience the fullness of a diverse workforce.
  • Leadership is About Them, Not You: Your job is to help your people be eminently successful. When they are, you will be deemed an effective leader…because of their work. Focus on helping them do great work.

When it comes to leading others, you don't want to lose your ideals or sense of idealism. But work itself will refine your ideals and balance them with practicality. What works is more important than what should work, theoretically, but doesn't in practice. When it comes to leading, be a practical idealist.

Bill Treasurer

Bill Treasurer is the Chief Encouragement Officer of Giant Leap Consulting. His latest book is Leaders Open Doors (www.leadersopendoors.com), and focuses on how leaders create growth through opportunity. Bill is also the author of Courage Goes to Work, an international bestselling book that introduces the concept of courage-building. He is also the author of Courageous Leadership: A Program for Using Courage to Transform the Workplace, an off-the-shelf training toolkit that organizations use to build workplace courage. Bill has led courage-building workshops for, among others, NASA, Accenture, CNN, PNC Bank, SPANX, Hugo Boss, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Contact Bill at btreasurer@giantleapconsulting.com, or on Twitter at @btreasurer (#leadsimple).