Leading Blog


Four Essential Behaviors for Every Leader

Sean Lemson

HUMAN BEINGS are complex. Throw in complex organizations operating in complex markets, and you’ve really got to marvel at how it all comes together every day. In the face of all this complexity, there are four basic behaviors that leaders can adopt that will drastically improve their leadership and, by extension, the experience of those they lead.

1. Create Effective Organizations

A very common mistake I see leaders make is to conflate the terms effective and efficient. Efficiency is a focus on process, maximizing outputs while minimizing resources. In business, this often looks like keeping employees busy. Ken Rubin, an agile leadership visionary, has a fantastic analogy that I refer to often to explain the concept. In relay racing, there are four runners, with only one running at a time. One hands off the baton to the next. Rubin likes to say that if we treated relay races the way we treat our team members, we’d tell them, “I’m not paying you to stand here. I’m paying you to run. So go run up and down the bleachers while you wait for the baton.” However, the team that wins the relay race is the team that gets the baton across the finish line first, not the team that had runners running the most. The winners in business are the ones that deliver value the fastest.

Efficient organizations focus on the runner. But, effective organizations focus on the baton. Leaders who get this wrong design team formations to keep everyone busy while completely missing that the baton is on the ground much of the time. Ironically, the busier employees are, often, the slower their baton moves. Packing a freeway to 100% capacity is an efficient use of the pavement, but it’s a very ineffective way to move cars.

Great leaders never lose sight of the baton. They don’t obsess over employee utilization as much as they obsess about value delivery, and they create organizations and workflows that support that focus.

2. Lead Ethically

Unethical behavior by a single employee is often easy to spot and deal with. But when it begins to spread slowly across an organization, it can quickly become the norm for that company’s overall culture. Take this common excuse as an example: “C’mon, everyone does it — it’s the only way to get ahead here.”

This slow spread of unethical behavior is called ethical fading. It’s usually the result of an incentive or reward combined with a person who sees no way to achieve the outcome without cheating a little. One unpunished sellout can cause a trickle-down of shrugging and excuse-making. Before you know it, the entire company is now behaving unethically.

Great leaders set and hold the bar on ethics. They don’t allow their organizations to slip into ethical fading because they recognize that it’s one of the fastest pathways to a toxic culture. These toxic cultures, in turn, bring with them far-reaching implications for the company that are much larger than the original reason for the unethical behavior.

3. Connect People with Meaning

There are always parts of our jobs that we don’t enjoy. But what makes us persevere is knowing that our work has meaning. It’s that sense of meaning that inspires us to think of new, innovative ways to do the work. Great leaders have contagious and persistent connections with the meaning of the work — and hopefully, it’s more than meeting quarterly earnings goals.

These leaders continually remind everyone — from the janitors to the developers at the company — of how their company is making a positive impact on the world and the role each individual plays in that impact.

Additionally, great leaders can spot the fire in us and learn to harness that fire for the company. They take a chance on our ideas and make it safe for us to fail while encouraging us to try. They see something in us that we may not yet see in ourselves. They connect our work to something we already enjoy.

4. Coach, Don’t Play

Good leaders stay off the field and let the players do the playing. They use the unique perspective afforded to them by their spot on the sidelines, combined with their knowledge of the game, to help the players make better choices. There’s a reason that professional sports teams pay millions of dollars for a coaching team. Coaches improve everyone’s performance on the field and, ultimately, the outcomes for the team.

One mistake I see companies make is trying to put their coaches in the game. I once worked with a company that decided to collapse its engineering organization by turning Engineering Managers into Managing Engineers, and oh, what a difference the word order makes. Managing Engineers are expected to have their hands on a keyboard most of the time. They’re super talented developers, so why not have them coding? There are two good reasons:

  1. These leaders are not honing the skills of leadership that the company will need later when they try to promote these leaders into roles where individual contributor skills aren’t what is needed.
  2. The employees on their teams aren’t getting the perspective and the political air cover they would get from leaders who could fully focus on the job. Instead, they compete with the work for the leader’s time.

This solution is an efficient one. It’s just not an effective one. Keep your coaches on the sidelines and use their afforded perspective to help the teams play better. These four key behaviors help leaders keep teams engaged, motivated, focused, performing, and innovating. If that isn’t a key goal for the leadership at your company, what is?

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Leading Forum
Sean Lemson is a leadership expert, executive and team performance coach and the founder of Motivated Outcomes, an organization devoted to improving performance, engagement, and leadership in today’s organizations. His new book is One Drop of Poison: How One Bad Leader Can Slowly Kill Your Company. Learn more at MotivatedOutcomes.com

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