3 critical activities for strong leaders

True leadership captures hearts and minds of employees
By Chris Bart
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/15/2011

Leadership looks so easy — right up to the time you have to do it. True leadership captures the hearts and minds of employees and gets “followers” to do what needs to be done. To achieve this, there are three critical activities good leaders must master to build a strong foundation for leadership development.

Lead by example

Wise leaders understand the importance of “tone-at-the-top” and leading by example, whether they intend to or not. They constantly look for ways to reinforce an organization’s priorities through their own behaviours and actions — especially those contained in the mission, vision and values.

They know employees are looking to their leaders for cues as to what constitutes acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour. When a leader does this effectively, others will typically copy or mirror the behaviours.

For example, the legendary owner of the Louisville Redbirds, A. Ray Smith, regularly cooked hamburgers, served customers and cleaned washrooms at the ballpark to show his front-line staff both the importance of their everyday work and what the boss really meant by the organization’s mission to create an extraordinary ballpark experience.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Employees aren’t mind readers. When clear direction is missing, workers typically fill in the blanks with their own interpretations of where they think the firm is headed and that drives their behaviour. Their collective actions, however well-intentioned, usually result in high levels of confusion as different individuals and groups work at cross-purposes to one another.

Mission statements have often been maligned over the years — largely for their lofty and abstract language. Leaders, therefore, must diligently translate the words (or messages) so each department can determine how to best contribute.

Of course, there are many ways to communicate an organization’s mission and other strategic priorities — a company newsletter, annual report, employee manuals and orientation sessions — and good leaders will use all of them for maximum message impact. They know you really can’t over-communicate important organizational messages. But the most under-appreciated, yet most persuasive, means of communication occurs during face-to-face interaction. Once a manager or boss speaks personally about the organization’s key priorities, a moment of truth is reached in the minds of listeners.

It is at this point stakeholders judge whether the leaders themselves actually believe in and understand the mission and the words contained within them.

One amusing, yet telling, example regarding the need for constant vigilance in communication concerns the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. He was famous for insisting upon a one-inch margin around all sides of any letter or report sent to him and would routinely measure documents with a ruler to confirm this. After finding a report that violated his policy, he apparently screamed at his secretary to tell the report writers to “watch the borders.”

Shortly thereafter, 20 FBI agents were dispatched to increase surveillance on all points of entry into the United States from both Canada and Mexico.

Good leaders know what they intend to say, what they actually say, what others hear them to say and what others understand them to say can be four different events. So, they work diligently to remove any gaps in understanding.

Measure success, give rewards based on strategic priorities

Psychologists tell us what gets rewarded gets done. As a result, leaders should work hard to ensure organizational systems and processes align tightly with a company’s stated strategic direction and priorities — but especially those contained in the mission. This includes hiring, firing, promotions, bonuses and salary adjustments, to name a few. Any gaps or contradictions between the mission statement and performance measurements are simply not tolerated.

As an example, one company prided itself on its exemplary customer and union relationships, which were enshrined in the mission. The board, however, demanded higher productivity to boost profits and share price and changed the bonus system to encourage this.

Management responded by closing plants and transferring production to the remaining ones. Shortly thereafter, product quality declined sharply. And the previously positive and supportive union relationship disintegrated into a hostile work-to-rule campaign.

By adopting and communicating these three critical leadership activities not just for yourself but as part of management development plans, HR professionals will influence and engage not just their team but the entire organization in a way competitors will envy.

Chris Bart is the author of A Tale of Two Employees and the Person Who Wanted to Lead them and a professor of strategic market leadership at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton. He can be reached at www.corporatemissionsinc.com.

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