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How to be a true leader

Have you ever walked behind a friend in the woods and they pushed branches out of their way only to allow them to slap you in the face when they snapped back?

Leadership is not for everyone. Too often people are placed in leadership positions because they have been leaders in the past, but if this is the process of placement, it is easy to overlook the differences between the past and the future. I encounter a lot of police officers that have moved into positions of leadership such as emergency manager. It makes sense on paper, but because of the atmosphere in law enforcement, that new emergency manager suddenly reveals that he was a cop and will always be a cop so emergency management principles begin to fade away from that office. The same goes for retired fire chiefs (a favorite for counties looking to fill that emergency management position).

Let me put it this way. Imagine you are opening a burger joint. You have researched burger joints all over the country and you envision the best, juiciest burgers in the world going out the door of your new place. You look online and find lo and behold, there is a 5-star Italian Chef looking for work. This is unbelievable! It turns out that he has run 3 restaurants in the past and was featured on a cooking show! You reach out, negotiate a deal and he begins running your kitchen. 3 days later you close the doors because it turns out that nobody likes fettuccine on a hamburger bun. In fact, it is gross.

Just because someone was a leader somewhere else does not make them the perfect fit for where you are placing them. Now, could the Italian Chef learn to make burgers? Sure, but he has to be willing to learn about the burger world, learn what the customers want, try new ingredients and let go of old dishes that were once a fan favorite.

With all that said, whether you are looking to fill a position or wondering why you are struggling to fill the one you yourself are in, this is for you.

A leader must be collaborative. You cannot have a team without a leader, and you cannot be a leader without a team to lead. If you ignore and pass by your team, they will leave. A good team, a strong team achieves success when their leader listens and works together with the team knowing that each member has his or her own gifts, insights and perspectives. Leaders too often exhaust themselves trying to control the thought processes of a team and end up even more exhausted when they realize they have to do everything themselves because the team no longer wants to participate.

An effective leader will focus on aligning goals to their team and the team’s capabilities thus keeping everyone on the same page.

A leader does not place blame on the team or on individuals. A leader has to take accountability to a higher standard and own the failures of the team or an effort. Once this level has been established, a leader needs to spend the time objectively seeking for the root cause of the failure and then collaboratively working with the team to find a solution that prevents the failure from happening again or soles problems caused by the first failure.

An effective leader is courageous. Too often “courageous” gets mixed up with “arrogant” so be careful! A good leader can face difficulty on their own if they have to, arrogant leaders choose to do so because of some imagined ability or ego. Leaders that are courageous will do what is right, will stand their ground when they know they are right and will stand up for the team when the team comes under attack or scrutiny. A good leader needs to be willing to be unpopular because of making the hard decisions but does not fall into the trap of thinking a good leader has to be unpopular because they perceive it to be a sign of weakness when loved by the team.

A good leader is respected and respect is earned through trust. Demanding respect out of your team means you either do not have the correct team members or you have failed to earn trust through concise decision making and allowing the team to collaborate with you. There are times when you will find an insubordinate team member and that issue needs to be dealt with, but before you pull that trigger, look to the root cause of the insubordination…did you do all you could to allow them a real place on the team? If not, change. If so, say “bye-bye”!

This one I was never good at. A good leader is a good listener. It took many years for me to master good listening (and I really don’t think I have mastered it all). I learned that listening does not mean agreeing; good listening is just that- listening without speaking. A good leader will listen, take physical or mental notes and then allow themselves to process the input they have just received. More often than not, I have found after that processing that a large percentage of the input had real value. It is difficult sometime to take that input and be a good listener as we tend to look at certifications and degrees as the means to speak, but even the new team member and the student intern can have a perspective that you need.

So, obviously we can see that a leader needs to be not a good communicator but a great one and that sometimes means knowing when to shut up and when to speak. Don’t try to be a motivational speaker all the time either. A great leader articulates their thoughts and instructions in such a manner that nothing ever sounds like an order but rather sounds like an invitation to work together toward a goal that everyone cares about. True communication is clear, concise and consistent. Push your people to go beyond what they think their capabilities are by pushing yourself beyond your own limits as well. Share those victories as you experience them so that your people know that victory is achievable.

Years ago I worked with NUPLA, the tool company. What made the NUPLA tools so special was the fact that you could not break them but they were flexible. It was truly amazing to watch the products be tested because they would take what appeared to be an extremely rigid Halligan handle and they would bend it to a “c” shape without it breaking! The Nuplaglas Composite handles are a good example of strength and flexibility.

Rigid, (stuck in their ways” leaders rarely get the results they want or need. Look around you; the world is a constantly changing place full of people that are influenced by small winds of opinion, want, need, desire, politics, finances and more. To not be flexible in an ever-changing world is management suicide. Remember that there is a massive difference between being flexible and being wishy-washy. A strong leader knows the goals, sees the path and leads his people in a single direction all while being okay if they have to stop a few times for food, water and potty breaks along the way. Learn to accommodate change and be open (as I have already mentioned) to receiving different perspectives that may change how you view your current situation.

This brings us to the importance of staying focused. I work with a lot of folks that have ADHD and it is difficult at times to complete projects with them because of their disorder. ADHD can effect everything in their lives causing them to be late for meetings, not prepared for meetings or worse. Being a leader means knowing how to focus and that is something that you have to discover a path to yourself. I am a list person, constantly making agenda just for myself such as “What needs to be done today” and “What I need from Jon today”.

I like using lists and agendas because I enjoy the feeling of crossing things off those lists and when a list is completed, it is another victory for me and/or the team.

Leaders foster emotional intelligence, which helps them empathize with people around them. In addition, being an active listener helps them understand the thought process of their team and become a good leader.

As we become focused and work out how to be a great leader, we have to be okay with not being the last leader. That last leader is gone- perhaps they retired, moved on or even died but they are gone. Create your own legacy as a leader as you discover new and more effective ways to success. Own your position don’t rent it from a landlord that is no longer there.

Well, you have read this entire blog so maybe you don’t need this bit of advice: always be willing to learn. Read, study, Google…whatever your “thing” is but never stop learning. There are days where I find myself in a hotel room with a spare hour or two and I will use that time to take an online class or research another subject for a blog. Always be learning and encourage your people to do the same.

Learning new things gives us a feeling of accomplishment which, in turn, boosts our confidence in our own capabilities; you'll also feel more ready to take on challenges and explore new ways of attacking projects. Acquiring new skills will unveil new opportunities and help you find innovative solutions to problems. Continuous learning opens your mind and changes your attitude by building on what you already know. The more you learn, the better you’ll get at seeing more sides of the same situation – helping you understand more deeply.

If I was to name one of my greatest weaknesses it would be that I am rarely optimistic. I am not quite Eeyore (although I have worked with Eeyore’s before), but I have been told that I can be a bit of a mood killer. Being optimistic is not always easy but because you are responsible for the morale of your team, it is imperative that you put forth the effort to be positive. Sometimes you have to point out that the glass is half empty, most of the time you should focus on it being half full and then there is the occasion when you should just get a smaller glass and move on.

Be patient as a leader. Look at how long this blog has been and I have only touched the surface of what it really takes to be a good leader. Try to remember that there is another list on how to be a good team member and your crew is trying to figure all that out while you are working on you.

Lastly, be a problem solver and encourage your people to be the same. One phrase that I use quite often is “Do not stay on my team if you want to talk about the obstacles all day without bringing up solutions!” Having problem-solving skills allows teams to effectively solve business problems and move past roadblocks. Good leaders are or become great problem solvers. I find that those online classes and blog research really help me hone my problem solving skills.

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