A huge amount has been written about leadership: what makes a great leader? What are their qualities? What is their management style?
Certainly, these are highly important aspects of building a successful business, but surprisingly little is said about the nature of the people you are looking to lead.
It’s all very well business gurus studying the most successful leaders and turning this into a ‘how to’ book, but I don’t buy it. I think leadership depends hugely on your audience.
My son Jon used to fly helicopters in the Fleet Air Arm. Helicopters are funny things – they’re not designed to fly in the way that birds and planes are, so if anything goes wrong, they fall out of the sky very quickly.
Not surprisingly, there are a huge number of checks to be done before you take off. Depending on who he was dealing with, Jon would spell out every last detail that he wanted checked (and then check it himself) or alternatively outline the objective and leave the individual to tackle it as a complete project for himself. This wasn’t academic theory: his life was at stake and he judged he would get the best results by treating them differently.
Believe in yourself
The first step in being a successful leader is to assess the confidence level of the team or individuals you want to lead.
Some people naturally lack confidence and need an arm round the shoulder. Praising even quite small things can help and you need to tell them how they can improve gently: ‘That was good, but it could be even better if you…’
I had a football manager at my club Woking FC who, without explanation, kept substituting a promising young player who was going through a bad patch. When asked why, he said, ‘I expect the lad to work it out for himself.’
The problem was that the manager had been a top player and was unable to make allowances for the calibre of the player concerned, his youth or his state of mind.
Stick to the basics
Conversely, another football manager I know has an entirely different approach. If one of his players is going through a bad patch and his first attempt at a pass goes into the crowd, that player over-compensates (he’s heard the crowd groan) so he tries even harder to hit that really long, ambitious pass. Inevitably it fails and now he’s convinced he’s going to have a very bad game, so of course he does. This manager’s approach was to tell the player to keep it simple: ‘When you’ve mis-hit an early pass, I want your next three passes to be square and short [the easiest passes of all]. Then when you’ve succeeded with those, you can try something else.’
An obvious group often lacking in confidence are mothers returning to work having started a family. Not having been through it, men often don’t notice this problem and again the answer is to break down problems into bite-sized chunks. The effort is well worthwhile, as working mums are often highly realistic, more practical and more loyal than the typical young employee still living at home.
Conversely, those who are over-confident need taking down a peg. A short, sharp shock usually does it (I’m assuming that you’ve done your homework better than he or she has, so that you have plenty of ammunition). It’s not very nice, but if the warning shot in private doesn’t work, then I do it in front of the team and use sarcasm if necessary. I hate arrogance and I want the message to be communicated very quickly: ‘We don’t do that here.’
The hard-working guys who are always at the office can bring their own set of problems, beyond the obvious ones of working too hard, getting tired and stale and making mistakes.
In my experience this excessive work ethic can be due to an inability to delegate or to see the big picture, an unhappy home life, deep insecurity or fraud: the employee doesn’t want to be away from work because you might find out what’s going on.
On the other hand, some people are lazy and are looking to cut corners. That may be a matter of personality or the fact that someone has been in the same job a long time and it has become uninteresting or unrewarding. Either way, you have to check up regularly on such people – be unpredictable when you do it and make sure they know you’ve done it.
When I moved to a company as a middle manager many years ago, I had a boss who had a mantra: ‘I want you to check everything before it leaves here, then check your checking!’ ‘Check your checking’ became a famous slogan: we mimicked our boss, we sniggered a little, but it was drilled into us – and there were no errors.
See also: Motivating staff on a budget