When I began my work as a soft skills developer, I saw a need that wasn't being addressed. More to the point, I realized our tools to address the problem were either ineffective or non-existent. The need I saw was that people lacked the skills to work and live in productive harmony together. This observation is linked to a more pervasive problem, that our culture struggles to cultivate, nurture, and celebrate effective leadership. But why do we do this and how can we correct our culture? First let's dive into what effective leadership looks like and why it even matters.
Can you remember a meaningful and positive interaction that you were drawn into? What did this feel like? Maybe it was just a simple conversation. Maybe it was a project or organization you were part of. Maybe it was a kind moment with an old relative or friend. Just spend a moment see how many meaningful and positive interactions you can recall. Why are they meaningful and positive for you? Did you feel seen and heard? Did you feel like your voice and presence had value? Were you shown appreciation and gratitude? As a result of feeling valued, did you want to increase your contribution or show appreciation in these situations? Chances are if you had an encounter that brought these feelings up, you had an encounter with an effective leader.
Here's the truth about effective leaders: they can come from anywhere. Effective leaders bring people together. They build bridges rather than create crevices. When I work with an effective leader I feel uplifted, championed, and inspired. Even during times when I must receive constructive criticism, I feel aided rather than ridiculed. Here's another truth: I consider these types of leaders to be all around me. I notice the qualities of effective leaders when I walk through my neighborhood and see people saying good morning to each other. I see effective leadership when someone refills the office pot of coffee after taking the last cup, or replaces the jug of water once it empties. I see leaders when I see a family meal being prepared and a space being created for gathering. I see a leader when I see someone continue to lean into honesty through compassion, even when it is hard or painful. I see leaders where kindness shared between strangers. My leaders are leading from a place of simple service- consistently taking out the trash, asking how they can help, lending their skills or expertise, making space to allow people an ear or a shoulder.
What's amazing about effective leadership is that you don't need a high price degree or an elite portfolio, you simply need to have a genuine investment in the world you live in. When I have been on projects led by effective leaders, goals were met, failures were seen as learning opportunities, success was shared with the team, and I felt pride in my contribution. These leaders were often just average people who were not wealthy or defined by material success. The most effective leaders I've worked with always took time to roll up their sleeves and join the team. But the notion of an "average person" leader defies what our culture tells us leadership should look like so we tend to dismiss or overlook these leaders- and this comes at a price.
To often we experience another type of leader. We've all been on projects where we feel like all we are doing is running into walls. Any effort we put into generating positive results is just met with a litany on "No's" or "We can't do that." We may remember watching our talents and the talents of our colleagues squandered and left to wither. Worse, we may have been publicly ridiculed, mocked or belittled causing us shame or rejection. We may have experienced an ego driven culture of negativity and neglect run morale into the ground and push human capital to either defect, resign, or succumb. This leaves projects and it's people in critical condition with fewer resources to push teams, organizations, and companies towards success. Our society is the repository for the damage done by these experiences.
These types of leaders usually arm themselves with signals of success or accomplishments. They may boast about affluence or victories but as projects face challenges these leaders are not out in front of their team, shielding the team from attack. Instead at times of struggle these "leaders" lean into blame looking for fault. Failures are highlighted, but rather than addressed and learned from, they become an opportunity to spread shame and humility. These leaders tend to fan gossip and mistrust among team members, undermining collaboration and confidence. The result of celebrating this style of leadership is that any project or goal becomes a secondary priority, and appeasing leadership's ego takes up everyone's bandwidth. But our culture celebrates this type of leader. We mistake value with values. We are urged to abandon our principals if we are promised effortless solutions. Worst of all, our culture turns destructive behaviors into profitable attributes. There is danger in tolerating and celebrating this style of leadership.
I can look back on my professional history and see that I have experienced both effective and ineffective leadership. I can also look back on my leadership history and observe past projects where I exhibited both styles as well. Noticing both styles of leadership allowed me to learn, grow, and realize I wanted to be an effective leader. That decision transformed how I approached my work. It impacted who I looked to up to, who I sought advice from and how I interacted with others. Having first hand experience in both leader styles, I can say that being an effective leader has brought more meaning and purpose into my life. I feel more connected to the people I work with. It is easier for me to lean into joy and gratitude. But most importantly, I know as an effective leader I have earned the team's trust, which increases their loyalty and produces better work.
Leading effectively can appear more challenging on the surface. It takes a higher level of discipline and awareness. I've realized that strong soft skills are a must-have in effective leadership. And I am constantly working on developing and strengthening these attributes in myself. But here is the trade off when I compare leading effectively vs. ineffectively... I no longer approach a work environment with insecurity or mistrust. I no longer let others opinions of me consume me. I'm no longer fighting to protect or defend my reputation. When I'm leading effectively I feel a deeper connection to those around me on the team. In effective work environments, gossip does not thrive but rather, honest and trusting encounters occur without excessive stress or pressure. In other words, culture created from effective leadership tends to be fulfilling, meaningful, and inclusive.
So why do we struggle to adopt this style of leadership throughout our culture? If we take a wide shot of companies, organizations, and institutions most of us would agree that in positions of privilege, there is a lack of effective leadership. We need to begin to address this problem if we want to make meaningful progress as a society. My personal feeling on this issue is that we cannot look to ineffective leaders to bring us out of this. We must champion, celebrate and shine a light on our effective leaders. We must support ourselves and others when we take up the mantle of simple acts of inspiration, wisdom, community, and connectivity. It is not enough to appoint leaders. We must examine how we want to be lead by supporting and appointing leaders who uphold those values. This is how we shift culture. This is how we make progress and create space where we all feel valued. This is how we become a happier and more purpose driven society. The choice is ours, what will it be?
All Hands In is a soft skills development company, specializing in effective leadership and team building. Connect with us to learn more about how our services may benefit you.