Leading by Example
MANAGERS WHO WANT TO become better leaders must develop sound leadership practices as part of their daily routine. These practices revolve around five key concepts: motivation, attitude, communication, integrity, and decisiveness.
True leadership can be seen in action when managers motivate their teams to meet their mission. The key to motivating employees is for managers to know where they are going and to set expectations high. If managers expect greatness from themselves, their employees will follow.
If a manager’s vision is to have the best security department around, the best-trained guards, or a successful loss prevention program, everyone—from the most junior security guard to the CEO—should know that this is the goal.
For example, while I was the director of security for a Regional Navy Command, our recruiting and retention numbers were awful. I implemented a goal that within a year we would be fully staffed, have people trained, and have those people at their stations ready to work.
To meet this goal, I assigned a quality employee to full-time recruitment duties. Then, I revamped the security department’s entire training pipeline so that no matter when someone joined the organization, they could undergo advancement training immediately. (Previously, a new employee would have to wait weeks before joining a training program, wasting time and money.)
I also began talking about what we were doing up and down the chain of command. I met with my division heads on how we were going to get the job done, what the milestones were, and whether any strategy revisions were necessary. In the end, we met our goal with a few months to spare.
Attitude dictates performance. A positive mental attitude is contagious, and if a leader has it, his or her department will catch it. During the staffing crisis just discussed, I always believed that we were going to achieve our goal. When I first launched the program, I talked to my division heads about the plan, but they were skeptical.
They had already been told that due to problems with logistics, pay, and benefits, we would never be able to reach the goal. However, eventually, my confidence rubbed off on them and, as we made progress, the positive attitude grew.
A critical part of attitude is empowerment. It is an overused word, but the only accurate one. Individual leaders don’t have all of the answers, but groups of knowledgeable problem-solvers might.
I had the opportunity to test this theory when I was put in charge of my first security department. I was new to the area and had never supervised so many personnel at once. What’s more, I had never tried to execute so large a budget.
Complicating matters even more was that my predecessor had made all decisions by himself and had penalized division heads for acting independently. This meant that all decisions landed on my desk. Granted, some needed to come to me, but 80 percent could have been made by others in the chain of command.
I told the division heads that they could start making decisions and that no one would be penalized for making what they thought was the right choice. I explained that they need only ask themselves: “Is this bigger than just my division and who should I let know?” This strategy empowered them, and it helped the department operate more effectively.
Having a vision, a great attitude, and a hardworking staff is useless if you cannot communicate with your employees. This means both talking to them and listening to what they have to say.
This is a challenge in today’s world of e-mail, PDAs, and cell phones. For example, I found that when staff members came to my office to talk about critical issues, I was always distracted by the “ping” of the incoming e-mail. To solve the problem, I ended up moving my computer off my desk altogether. I also turned off the speakers during meetings so that I was not bothered by incoming mail.
Great listening requires active participation. This is accomplished through taking notes, asking questions to confirm understanding, and repeating back points for clarification. Without this kind of attention, the mission is less likely to be achieved.
Communication also means getting to know employees as people. Managers should set aside time each day to talk with staff. Though it may sound simple, one of the most difficult jobs a manager faces is to be human.
For example, one day a young man came into my office and asked for time off. When I asked why, he explained that his wife had just miscarried and that they were having a hard time dealing with it. I then shared with him that my wife and I had gone through the same thing several times before we had our first child. He left knowing that I understood and that he wasn’t alone.
It is critical to understand that taking care of employees does not mean coddling. One of the best people I ever worked for was someone who constantly pushed me to my limits. But even with his huge workload, he never forgot to ask me how I was doing or how my family was.
In the end, there are always new missions, new goals, and new perspectives. What really is important is the impact you have on the people along the way. This impact occurs all the time, and managers must be mindful of it.
Some managers feel that they don’t need this kind of response from employees as long as the work gets done. However, respect and loyalty based on position or organization is one thing. It can be perfunctory and grudging. Respect and loyalty based on honesty, integrity, and care is completely different. It is given freely and often greases the wheels during difficult times. Be genuine in your concern; treat your people as people, and then respect, loyalty, and motivation will come.
Another key to effective leadership is to maintain absolute integrity at all times. This means that managers must have a code that they live by, and they must not waver from it.
There are certain times that this integrity is tested. For example, inspections are a part of life. In my own case, I was once faced with a negative appraisal during an inspection. During the inspection, I had to explain the problems we had and how we were going to correct them. I could have altered facts to make things look rosier, or blamed others. By taking the responsibility for the situation myself, I showed the staff that we were all in this together.
When managers try to make themselves look better by fudging facts or placing blame on others, they reveal a lack of integrity. Employees will notice and react to that behavior.
If managers maintain their integrity, they gain the trust of their employees. Managers can provide no greater comfort to their workers than the knowledge that, no matter what, the manager will do the right thing and adhere to high standards. Compromise this integrity even once and this trust is shattered.
Managers should also consider taking a class in ethics if only to learn how to describe the values they already hold dear. When I teach ethics, I conduct a values auction. I write down about 30 different words ranging from honesty and integrity to love and respect. I then give the students fake money and have them bid for the values they feel strongest about.
We discuss why they bid on a particular value and why it is important to them. I try to group some of the values together to show how similar some are. The point here is that anyone can talk generically about values but it is what that value means to each individual that counts.
Decisiveness. Many managers say that the only bad decision is indecision. How often are opportunities missed by failing to make a decision? How many times have you waited for your boss to decide what to do? Managers must learn to trust themselves and make a decision.
There is nothing wrong with a deliberative decision that takes time to achieve. This is often necessary, so long as a decision gets made in the end. However, many times the influx of too much information or the fear of making the wrong decision keeps any action from being taken at all. At a previous job, my predecessor avoided making decisions and punted all difficult queries to his boss. This senior executive already had too many decisions to make, so often no decisions were made at all.
Not all decisions will be perfect. Many of the decisions I made had to be reworked later as situations changed or I learned more. When this happened, I explained the situation to the staff—keeping integrity in mind at all times—and kept the team focused on the next challenge. The key was that I was making decisions, doing something, and keeping the organization moving forward.
Motivation, attitude, communication, integrity, and decisiveness. These principles are a solid foundation on which to build leadership skills.
Charles W. Lutz is a naval officer assigned at Great Lakes, Illinois. He is the manpower officer for a command that encompasses six states. Additionally, he is adjunct faculty member at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, and Keller Graduate School of Management in Milwaukee.