Leadership Advice: It Pays to Show Your Reports That You Care

Lead your staff by aligning values and actions.

"They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care," holds the old adage. It’s simple, basic, even trite. Yet think back and name the leaders who have cared for you. I can guarantee that it’s a short list because most leaders don’t get it. Their mouths say they care (and I believe most really do), but their actions tell a different story. They don’t know how to care and consequently appear to care only for themselves.

I see it every day. Many common leadership actions scream, "I care more about myself than I do about you—or the enterprise." As you read these descriptions, see if any hit home.

Talking too much. You put your needs in front of others’. You self-promote, overuse the word I and rarely question. Because of your self-centered viewpoint, you are unable to play an enabling role by helping others find the right answers and gain credit for the results.

Forgetting that people have dreams. You assume that people want to get promoted within the context of their current position. You begin development discussions with "This is what you need to do to get to the next level" rather than exploring how employees can build the skills they will need to mesh their long-term goals with the interests of the enterprise. Finding that sweet spot energizes employees.

Refusing to replace poor performers. Everybody waits for you to do the right thing, but you fail to give honest feedback and spend entirely too much time trying to mitigate or work around the problems created by inadequate job performance. As a result, teams are not able to function without intervention, and strong performers have to make up for others’ weaknesses. Everybody is frustrated when the solution seems so obvious and close at hand.

Playing defense. You allow work to flow into the organization unfiltered. Rather than playing offense—by defining the work that will and will not get done, clarifying objectives and ensuring adequate staffing—you are reduced to acting defensively. You try to bolster performance by micromanaging employees and overcontrolling their work. Some of your managers don’t get the support they need and feel ignored and professionally at risk, while others get too much scrutiny and feel a lack of trust and respect. Everyone is working too hard for too little, in both results and recognition.

Ignoring the forest for the trees. You focus on strategy at the expense of delivery. You overlook the need to interact with the front line of the organization in order to challenge your perceptions of reality and road-test your strategies. By staying in the corner office, you delegate the critical work of the organization too quickly (before the work is really understood) and too far away (buried deep in your organization). As a result, you become isolated and communicate to your staffers that what they do isn’t all that important and that you are out of touch.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don’t, describes the attributes of a great leader. After conducting his own empirical research, Collins concluded that great leaders have a "paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will." Their personal humility is evinced in their willingness to learn from others, serve as a guiding hand and let the team receive credit. At the same time, these leaders demonstrate the professional will to make the hard decisions about people, confront the truth about what can and should be done, and dig down to the details when necessary.

Why do so few leaders fulfill Collins’s ideal? Perhaps because they were never really cared for themselves. It’s the "abused leaders abuse" syndrome. If you are an abuser and believe that people are just a means to your end, do everyone a favor and transition to an individual contributor role, like investment banking or consulting. If you are one of the good guys and the actions I described above made you a little squeamish, then it’s time to break the cycle of abuse. Most managers find leadership assessments based on 360-degree feedback to be very helpful in identifying their problem areas and monitoring their progress. As you face the (sometimes) brutal truths and summon the courage to change, take heart in the fact that by serving others, you will also serve yourself. As Collins found, leaders at superior companies "loved what they did, largely because they loved who they did it with."

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