Recently in May, I was honored to present at the Women in Real Life (WiRL) Leadership Summit on the topic of “Leadership Beyond Title.” As an executive myself, I’ve seen my fair share of those who lead through title (borrowed authority) and those who lead free of title (earned authority). The former typically run a short-lived course with hit-or-miss results, the latter a long-term life cycle with predictable success.
Always the curious type, I dove deeper into exploring the differences between these two leaders and what sets them apart. As a first stop, I hit up the dictionary to see what we are telling ourselves about leadership and came across a gem. While the definition of “leader” was a bit rigid and smacked of arrogance (the person who commands a group, organization, or country.), the definition of “lead” really struck me. Here it is:
1. to go before or with to show the way.
2. to conduct by holding and guiding.
3. to influence or induce.
4. to guide in direction, course, action, opinion.
Right there in the definition between “leader” and “lead” are the key differentiators between our leader drunk on authority and our leader who gracefully gains authority by way of approach. When I consider the bolded words above, it evokes inner strength and ease: The long, deep rudder quietly guiding the boat as opposed to the captain up top barking orders.
So how does one demonstrate these key aspects of what it means to lead? While many ideas come to mind, here are a few to get you started in a very meaningful way.
Create time to be with one another. If you’ve ever seen a team at work or at play that is deeply bonded, you’ve witnessed a thing of beauty. And something savvy employers dream of. Teams built of tight-knit, deeply forged relationships are more productive and effective than teams loosely strung together. In order to create the cohesion and depth of commitment with each other, go outside and play! Have fun, be spontaneous, and create memorable experiences.
Hold regular 1:1s with staff. Speaking of connection, allow there to be sacred, individual time between yourself and your staff. Set aside 30-minutes to an hour to go deep and focus on them. I like to catch up on their lives by finding some common interests and then launch into theiragenda. That’s right. Their agenda. I prefer this time to be mainly focused on their needs – issues they’re struggling with, opportunities being assessed, unexpected challenges – so that we can really sink our teeth into something meaningful. We always end with a quick check-in on how each of us is doing. It’s a great time to give and receive feedback!
Share the influence of your products or company. Your company and its products exist for very unique reasons specific to you. No matter what you deliver – bolts for jetliners or design services for office space – your purpose is to elevate your trade and better this world in a way that only your company can deliver. Given that we all want to feel our lives are spent with purpose and meaning, never assume your employees automatically get the impact they are having on the world. At monthly meetings, make some time for stories to be shared so that the fulfillment of your mission and vision can nourish everyone on an ongoing and consistent basis.
Guide the corporate culture through your day-to-day interactions. Relationships are developed through conversations. How we show up and interact in those conversations determines the quality of those relationships. For example, if we want open, honest relationships with our team then our conversations must be truthful and free of judgment. If we strive for collaborative relationships then our conversations need to be inviting, curious, welcoming of new ideas. Whereas the quality of our conversations results in the quality of our relationships, the quality of our relationships results in the quality of our culture. An open, collaborative, playful, committed culture requires the same in all the day-to-day interactions happening everywhere in the workplace. As a leader, be mindful of this and ensure your conversations are guiding your culture to the outcome you desire.
All in all, leadership is a quiet exercise. One born of inner strength and a deep, unwavering commitment to supporting all those who surround you. It’s selfless. It’s free of ego. It’s a privilege and it does not come with title. It comes as silently as a luna moth gracing the summer evening. It comes one relationship, one connection, one conversation at a time.