What followers want from leaders

In the past few weeks I have been privileged to talk with large groups of leaders about my research on how to be inspiring. It seems, no matter where I go, that there is always huge interest in the subject of leadership – and what it takes to be engage and motivate employees.
Questions I received from members of the audience during and after my session had to do with what followers need and want from their leaders.
Leadership – wherever it is – does not happen in a vacuum. Leaders operate in an ecosystem of interdependent people in an environment that they all inhabit together, and depend on. Leaders have followers. They have advisers. They have peers. They have competitors. They have customers. They have shareholders. They have regulators. Depending on where they are in the organisation chart, they might even have bosses. And leaders have to communicate with all of these audiences.
For any leader, though, the most important audience is followers. Nothing gets done without inspired and motivated followers. Customers won’t be satisfied, regulators will be alarmed, competitors will be gleeful and advisers will have a field day, if followers don’t perform.
This was a key message from the 120 interviews I did with the Chairmen and CEO’s of a wide variety of organisations. If you are a leader, your most important asset is motivated people.
So, if followers are the most important audience, then what do followers want from their leaders?
All my research, and my experience of working in companies for three decades, tells me that, above all, what followers want in a leader is someone they can believe in.
Followers respond best to leaders who have a strong strategic focus, with a clear vision of where the business should be going, who speaks plainly and truthfully and, when necessary, courageously and with principles. They especially like leaders who stand up for them and defend them to the hilt.
For my next book, I recently commissioned research from YouGov, the online research agency, among 4,000 managers and employees in the UK. I wanted to find out which management behaviours were deemed to be most important, by both managers and employees.
The YOUGOV survey highlighted that the single most important attribute in a manager was making employees feel important and appreciated.
66% of managers and 65% of employees regarded this as the top attribute, by some way ahead of all other attributes.
If that is the most important attribute, how do leaders perform on the criteria of respecting employees?
how do leaders perform against on respecting employees? In our survey, 73% of managers felt they made their employees feel respected at work. (A curious four percent admitted they did little to respect their employees.) However, only 40% of employees said their bosses regularly made them feel respected.
Ouch. That’s 60% of employees feeling undervalued and under-appreciated, a lot of the time.
What effect would greater feelings of respect have on employee willingness to give discretionary effort? The YOUGOV research shows that if managers could move their performance here from poor to good (not outstanding, just, just good) the payback would be a 36% jump in discretionary effort.
The research is very revealing on the subject of which management behaviours get the best results from employees, and I will reveal more fully these results in my new book, due out at the end of this year.
In the meantime, here is the list of the top 8 management attributes, in ranking order.
1.Making employees feel important and appreciated.
2.Being honest and sincere.
3.Demonstrating consistent principles.
4.Listening carefully.
5.Defining goals and reviewing them regularly.
6.Being committed to a purpose wider than profit.
7.Understanding employee perspectives.
8.Communicating customer expectations/experiences.
So, leaders with a strong set of values built on honesty and openness and respect for other people are the most inspirational of all. They are predictable, and they are human.
Followers want leaders to be accessible, with genuine humility and even, occasionally, vulnerability.
They want someone who listens to them and respects their views, someone who gives them energy and makes them feel involved and even electrified; they want someone whose passion and drive make it fun to work with them; they want to be trusted and in turn, to trust their leader.
They want to be appreciated and to have their successes celebrated; and they want to feel valued, as much as they need to value their colleagues and the company for which they work. They want to have fun, and enjoy what they do, and they want to believe that what they do makes a difference.
Followers want leaders to make them feel inspired.
And that’s the bottom line.
Great leaders know that they must inject emotion into their communications or else they will be unable to make followers feel anything. The language of business is numbers, but for many that can be very boring. Action and commitment follow only when people feel uplifted and enabled and clear about what they are supposed to achieve.
All too often I have seen leaders insist on staying in the world of rational argument, rooting their calls to action in the need to deliver the numbers.
To be a great leader, you have to learn to communicate with passion, because passion begets action.