Many if not most business writers cite the importance of “inspirational leadership”. Since the people working within an organisation are its life force then it must make sense to inspire them to work smarter and faster: inspire them to come up with ideas that cut costs and increase sales and open up new opportunities: inspire them to cooperate as a team. But specifying exactly how you inspire is not so easy. What is easy is to recognise behaviours that have the opposite effect: that demoralise. Cutting out those behaviours takes you a long way towards being inspiring.
- 1. Don’t promise reward and then fail to deliver
A chief executive involved in a business turnaround pressed to be given shares in the business. This was not just a question of financial reward for success but it also improved the psychological bargain, aligning her interests with those of the other shareholders and making her feel valued. The cost was small because the business had no value at that point. After many conversations and a wait of two years it was finally agreed at an insignificant percentage, by which time the initial improvement in business trading was petering out and so the main shareholders never delivered, arguing that they did not want to reward failure. It never occurred to them that acting swiftly and generously to the initial request might have saved their business.
- 2. Don’t fail to communicate, and don’t prevaricate or change your mind every five minutes
These behaviours undermine confidence that the leader knows what they are doing.
When important strategic questions go unanswered your team is left directionless and morale drops rapidly with every day’s delay. The impact is far worse when the leader responds to urgent questions, by seeking further information, perhaps because he does not know the answer, or worse simply initiates conversation on pet subjects that are within his comfort zone. The team consequently feel priorities are wrong and fill the gap in direction with hidden meaning and secrets where none may exist.
That does not mean that any decision is better than a slow decision – if you need time to consider then take it but there is a difference between that and indecisive.
- 3. Don’t politik
Some business leaders think they protect their position and get the best from their team by encouraging rivalries. They imagine that competition makes people strive harder. They are mistaken. Such behaviours waste people’s time on unproductive effort: instead of working together they undermine each other; they have unnecessary arguments and territoriality prevents cooperation whilst encouraging teams to work within psychological silos – as if for a series of different organisations. Don’t have favourites, don’t undermine colleagues and don’t join or encourage cabals within your organisation – quite the contrary, stamp on them because they destroy value.
- 4. Don’t sub-divide your team
I worked for an organisation that was taken over by another but the senior managers of both remained in the combined entity. However, some information was only provided to the acquiring team, whilst the acquired team felt sidelined. The CEO tended to arrange meetings for times when his “allies” could attend, displaying weakness and inviting derision as well as demoralising the others. You should not have or need “allies”. You have a team. If you have allies then you also have enemies who are out to undermine you. If they were not doing so at the outset they surely will after you have defined them as non-allies.
- 5. Don’t micromanage
It shows lack of confidence, represents a failure to develop your colleagues, slows decision taking and risks both burn-out and over-reach. Do you really know how to do everything better than your team? Maybe you do but what are they for if you can and have time to do it all?
- 6. Don’t display moral weakness
There has been much in the news lately about top business leaders behaving badly, abusing employees, discriminating, acting unlawfully. This behaviour damages the brand with customers and employees. But, you may say, their companies are still successful. That apparent success usually erodes once failings become public and, of course, you never know what their companies might have achieved. Sleazy behaviour undermines trust. If top managers are known to behave inappropriately, how can they imagine their more junior colleagues will not think it is ok to do the same? Leadership is partly about setting an example – for good or ill. Don’t encourage your Finance Director to manipulate the accounts because a small misdemeanour in this regard quickly becomes accepted practice and gets out of control. “I did not know” is not a good defence for a leader because the leader is responsible for the cultural environment where such things were acceptable.
- 7. Don’t manage one person who then manages the rest of the team
If you are one-on-one that way why does the organisation need you? And how do you know the one person you communicate with is telling you everything you need to know? Your whole team is your responsibility and how the individuals work as a team is your responsibility.
But what if you over-manage and undermine the team leaders who report to you? That requires judgement. If you aspire to be a good leader you must learn where the boundaries lie. You must also give equal time and attention. One leader, new to the organisation, put all her management effort into one person whom she deemed a poor performer. The others, however, just becoming alienated through the lack of attention, and thought the poor performer was favoured.
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