(This is an exclusive article I wrote for the Chartered Management Institute. It appears in the INSIGHTS section of their website.)
Charismatic leaders are crystal-clear about their values and put them on constant display in the close-quarter combat of daily business. In a world in which people are now suspicious of each other (after all, you never know who might have the virus!) it becomes so much more important for managers to build and maintain trust in their teams.
Trust, they say, is money. In business, it is the difference between success and failure.Yet, in this COVID-blighted world, we are short of both trust and money.
Levels of trust have declined as we are forced to become suspicious of people we travel with, work with, shop with. We feel suspicious of companies who might be going down the tubes because of a lack of money. We don’t know whether to trust our bosses as we wonder if we are soon for the chop. We have to rely on computer screens for inter-personal interaction, and it is far more difficult to get a sense of who people are, and what their real motivations are.
The challenge for every manager today is that trust is a catalyst for great performance. As companies struggle to regenerate revenues, or maintain profitability, we’ve never needed great performance more.
When teams or organisations are highly trusted, everything becomes easier. You can innovate faster. Customers will be more willing to try your new ideas. You can get things done with suppliers and partners quickly and easily. The cost of doing business falls while income rises.
When you are not trusted, however, the cost of doing business escalates. Everything gets harder to do, and suppliers and partners require more diligent contract work. Customers are less likely to want to try new products and services, so you have to work harder to get them to buy.
Without trust, a team simply cannot function properly. Everything takes longer, communication becomes more difficult and innovation withers on the vine. Trust and leadership go hand in hand, for very few people are willing to be led by someone they do not trust. If a leader is not trusted, that lack of trust becomes contagious, and members of the team soon start distrusting each other. The contagion can quickly spread in a company and out to customers and other stakeholders, destroying business efficiency and potential.
It is therefore essential that a leader is trusted, gives trust and fosters trust in the team. Trust starts, or ends, with the manager. Being a great manager is therefore not only about brilliantly managing what other people do. It is, first and foremost, about managing who you are being and what you are doing.
If I was to ask you whether you thought you were honest, whether you behaved with integrity, and whether you had a strong set of principles, I have little doubt that the answer would be yes, of course. I also have little doubt that this is true. The problem comes in inconsistent behaviours, inadvertent hypocrisy, and a simple lack of self-awareness, along with a lack of understanding of your impact on others.
It is in these areas that trust breaks down. While managers say they are honest, a worryingly large number of employees disagree. This is a significant perception gap, and one that points to the need for a lot more work by managers to ensure that they are behaving in ways that deliver a greater sense of honesty, more consistent principles and a greater self-awareness.
To close this gap and be seen as authentic, leaders must be skilled in the following areas:
Delivering honesty and integrity, consistently
As leaders we are being scrutinised every single moment, and everything we say, everything we do and every decision we make will be picked over by our teams, who will be quick to interpret those actions through their own set of filters. To avoid being thought of as potentially dishonest, or lacking in principles, it becomes necessary to be radically transparent with people – absolutely straight with them about what decisions you’re making and why. It is then especially important to ensure there is no gap between your words and actions.
Having and living a personal mission and values
Some of the best managers I’ve ever worked with were inspiring because they were crystal-clear about their beliefs and morals and put those on display in the close-quarter combat of daily business. Because they put their values on display, daily and consistently, people never questioned where they stood on issues. They simply knew. This was particularly useful to employees when the boss wasn’t around. When facing a problem by themselves, employees simply had to refer to what they thought the boss would do in the same circumstances, what values he or she would apply, and they knew what to do. Because of their values, there was a strong culture in the team, and a strong sense of belonging, because everyone knew what was right and what was wrong, so they all behaved in the same way.
Being visibly committed
The only way you can lead is by being visible, which means being out and about. If you’re out and about you will be listening to the people in your business, you’ll be listening to customers, and you will be listening to all the people who matter to your team or organisation. Leaders have to find ways to make themselves more visible and ensure that everyone in their team or organisation hears what they’ve got to say. It is amazing how often managers hide behind closed doors after implementing difficult decisions. Employees simply think, rightly so, that you’re being cowardly. Courageous leaders always show up for the difficult conversations, and sometimes just showing up is the message.
It is rare that we see ourselves as others do. Who we are, and what we believe and feel, shows up in our unconscious behaviours, and may be sending signals we really don’t mean to convey.
There is often a huge gap between how we believe we are coming over, and how we are being received. How you act will reflect in how your employees act. If being a leader is about managing yourself first, then developing the strength of self-awareness is critical to your leadership success. How can you lead and motivate others by understanding them better, if you don’t understand yourself first? Self- awareness is the root of empathy.
Leadership is not about you; it’s about the people you lead, the organisation you represent and the customers you serve. When you truly take this on board, you stand a chance of being a humble leader – and a better leader. These are not leaders who are stricken with self-doubt or are negative about themselves. They simply put others first and fence off their egos from public view. As C S Lewis said: ‘Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.’
Each of these skills (for they are skills) involves leaders behaving in ways that will be clearly visible to those that they lead. They require you to think about what each behaviour means for your daily routine, and how each and every one of your behaviours might need to change and improve in order to have a positive impact on the people you lead. It means managing yourself first, before trying to manage others.