The Heart of Leadership, part 1 of 5

leadership heartIn Part 1 of Engineering Leadership, which we will cover in 5 parts,  we start by laying down what I refer to as the “Heart of Leadership”.

  1. Optimism
  2. Trust
  3. Courage
  4. Humility
  5. Love

These are matters of character, behavior, and disposition.  While I consider these fundamentals immutable, we should recognize that they can also be aspirational at times.  Meaning that even the most optimistic among us has their dark days, the most humble will have moments of overly self centered pride, the most loving may also find hate at some point in their life.  We are all fallible and imperfect.

We must of course recognize these imperfections and be willing to first forgive ourselves and then the leaders around us for these transgressions.  Make no mistake we require an “A” on these fundamentals but even scoring that high means you may still miss the mark 10% of the time.

Accepting those faults is where humility and love come into play.  You need humility to honestly accept and readily recognize that you will fall down at times.  You need love because you cannot have love without forgiveness, and you must give and accept both love and forgiveness if you are going to lead.

Heart of Leadership Graphic

Fundamental #1 – Join the Optimist Club

Unless they are being prodded in the back with a rifle no one follows a pessimist up the hill and into fire. If you don’t believe in the opportunity in front of you, your company or your team then you have already lost.  This doesn’t mean we must engage in folly where the odds are impossible or that you refuse to retreat and regroup when you must.  But you must believe, first in yourself and then in those around you so they too can come to believe in themselves.

Each threat and risk encountered must receive a clear eyed assessment and be either embraced or avoided.  But the perspective one starts with is essential to the outcome of every action and reaction that follows.   Leadership simply requires belief.  Belief that the team can win.  That failures will be overcome in the end.  That good will prevail and evil will fall.   This belief starts with optimism and a predisposition to find the light even while staring in to the darkest abyss.

Leadership simply requires belief.  Belief that the team can win.  That failures can and will be overcome.

Anyone can lead when there is little chance to win or lose.  Some situations simply cannot be overcome with leadership alone and in others the competition will be steamrolled by so much momentum and inertia that poor leadership won’t stop the success.  But most of life and business does not exist at these extremes.  Most situations are on the bubble, in the middle, or could go either way and optimistic leadership can determine the outcome of all of these situations.

The team that navigates these “on the bubble” opportunities and challenges each day with fundamental optimism about themselves, their team members, and their leadership will win most of the time.  Some of the time they will win even when “the numbers” say they should not.  Winning the battles or capturing the opportunities you should win is simply essential to survival.  Winning a greater number of the opportunities that could go either way is essential to thriving vs. existing.  None of those wins will come if the leader doesn’t engage their team with optimism that is strong enough to motivate the entire team.

Lastly it is optimism that allows you and your team to get back up after a fall.  You will lose.  You will fail.  It is during and immediately after these events that bringing a fundamentally optimistic view to the table is perhaps most important.   It is optimism that you will be better next time that allows you to fully digest and truly make the most of the lessons that the failure offers.

We learn very little when we win.  Our assumptions and beliefs we entered the situation with are simply reinforced by the result so we do not evolve from a successful experience much at all.  It is in losing that we have the greatest chance to improve, but those lacking optimistic leadership often do not have the courage to stare down their losses with the intensity and openness required to learn the most from every painful lesson.

Learning effectively from losses is where several other fundamental traits come together.  One of the most critical is trust.

Fundamental #2 – Breaking the Paradox of Trust

When it comes to foundational traits and requirements of leadership none is more important that trust. Those around you will not appreciate your optimism, courage, or humility if they do not trust you.  Nor will they accept your love.  Without trust all of these other character traits become suspect and will be viewed like a new coat of paint on a rotting pier.  It looks good from afar but it is not something that people will moor their future to.

We have all been told since childhood that you must earn peoples trust, as it will not be granted up front. The issue with that truism is what many have called the “paradox of trust”.  Stated simply this paradox is that you can’t trust someone you don’t know but that you cannot really begin to get to know someone without first granting them some measure of trust.  The way through this paradox is to grant the people you work with and more importantly who work for you the benefit of the doubt.  Someone has to go first and break the paradox.  Leaders do this.

Leaders must break the cycle of mistrust or perhaps more accurately lead the group in overcoming the absence of personal experience between individuals and teams that is required to allow trust to grow.  Granting others this first step is a risk that leaders must take.  Sometimes disappointment will follow as some of those whom are granted a first measure of trust will misuse or abuse the situation to take advantage.  Exposing yourself to such risks is one of the costs of leadership, but like those who miss out on love through fear of being hurt, those that refuse to grant a measure of trust to those who have not yet earned it cannot lead.

Moving beyond the breaking of the paradox and building a deeper sense of trust with others is the next step in any meaningful relationship.  Leaders accomplish this deepening by demonstrating care and interest in the individuals they work with, work for, and whom work for them.  This circle of care must extend in all directions around each leader.  It must be personal in nature and requires leaders to expose their own wants, desires, interests and their vulnerabilities to those around them at all levels.

Those that only take a personal interest in those above themselves in the organizational structure will not be trusted by those around them or below them in the organization.  The self-centered focus that drives such behavior is both obvious and toxic to building trust on the team and across the organization.  How many people do you know that seem to be fascinated by everything to do with their boss but don’t know the person sitting across the aisle?   We can all spot this behavior from a mile away and while those that “manage up” may at times be promoted for their attentions to those above them they can never truly lead.

Extending trust first and being vulnerable to others who may misuse that trust takes courage.  Which brings us to our next fundamental.

Fundamental #3 – Teaching Others to Overcome their Fear

Living in a society today that spends an enormous amount of time, money, and effort to take away our fear and pain, we can easily forget that it is in owning and overcoming those fears that we first cultivate courage.  I think of courage as a muscle.  We are not endowed with a given level of courage or granted courage by anyone else, we must develop courage one small step at a time.   We are also never done with courage nor is it done with us.

Courage is certainly not limited to leaders and the potential for great courage exists in every one of us.  What makes leaders different is that they are not satisfied by overcoming their own fears.  Leaders know that developing and cultivating courage in everyone they work with is a key responsibility.  Building and growing organizational courage is essential to building a deeper more resilient team that can get up on their own when the leader is not there to help.

Teaching and helping others to grow their courage muscle is much harder than simply being courageous yourself.   This challenge is what I believe separates good leaders who may at times exhibit incredible personal courage from great leaders who build lasting companies and lasting legacies.  Courageous leaders who take on all the fears and pain of their team or organization become martyrs.  They are too soon exhausted leaving their team that did not build their own muscle to carry the team forward in a terribly exposed position.

The ability to develop courage in others requires our other Fundamentals.  We must trust those around us enough to let them face their own fears and provide the optimism they sometimes need to focus on the good that can result from their actions and decisions as opposed to being focused on the downside they fear so much.   The other, perhaps most important, fundamental that is required to teach and develop courage in others is our next topic – humility.

Fundamental #4 – Helping Others Believe in their Importance

Humility is defined as, “the quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.”  While this definition is not incorrect it is not sufficient to describe how leaders use humility to nurture greatness.   Before we get to the more nuanced part that humility plays let us start with the very basic position that having a healthy dose of humility is critical to being both an effective person and an effective leader.

We know this to be true as we recognize our resentment or disgust for those that are the opposite of humble.  Those who believe it is all about them or that only they can solve the organizations problems turn us off and discourage us.   We may at times have to consent to be “managed” by people exhibiting these traits but they will never lead us.

Examining the connection between developing courage in others and humility we can quickly see how one must be present to accomplish the other.  Without personal humility we will be far too quick to resort to using our own courage to step in and “take one for the team.”  Or we are too quick to believe that we can do it better and only we can step in and save the day.  This is the difference between being personally courageous and building a team or organization that has developed courage at every level.  To build that organizational muscle takes exercise and stepping aside in order to let everyone on the team get the reps they need to build their own muscle.  This requires a leader to have great humility.

Leaders must be quick to recognize that while they may in fact be more important to the team’s success at a certain moment in time, it is their responsibility to reduce that importance as quickly as possible by strengthening the rest of the team.   This raising up vs. lowering down is what I was alluding to earlier when stating that the definition of humility is not sufficient to describe the role humility plays in successful leadership.

Truly impactful leaders do not lower their opinion of themselves in an act of humility.  They do not make themselves less important by stepping down to a lower level of performance or expectations to display their sense of modesty.  What successful leaders do is use their humility to recognize that everyone on their team has the potential to be just as important as themselves.

Don’t lower yourself down, raise others up

Managers want to be important.  Leaders know they must make everyone else important.  Leaders must work hard at every turn to raise up everyone’s sense of importance and confidence in the mission.  We can do this by making it clear that we are no better than anyone else and that everyone has just as much potential for impact and importance as anyone else.

Leaders must demonstrate this in every aspect of their job.  Park in the back, meet with any level employee, smile and recognize you have no right to be unhappy if you are running the show.  Leading is a privilege, act like it and be humble and grateful for every day you have that privilege.

Fundamental #5 – Love Conquers All   

When head coach Dabo Sweeney was asked about Clemson’s win over perennial favorite Alabama for the National Championship in 2016 he replied, ““I told them that the difference in the game was going to be love.”  I like this reference because it is hard to find a more stereotypically manly game filled with more bravado than American football.  It is not a place we expect to find “love” at the top of the list of things that drives the outcome of the most important game of the year.  Coach Sweeney has built a very successful program at Clemson and at the foundation of that success is love.

love-conquers-all-short-storiesWe all know that love can make us do crazy, incredible and improbable things.  We most often associate those feelings and actions with our children, our spouse, our siblings, our parents or our closest of friends.  But consider the power that is available to us all if we can activate those feelings of affection, fierce protection, undying loyalty, and a willingness to do whatever it takes among our team and across our organizations.

Developing and nurturing love across a team requires a leader to have tremendous amounts of the other fundamentals we have discussed.  Without courage and trust there is no way love can take root.  Without humility, leaders seeking to establish love will simply be seen as seeking adoration not in giving but in receiving.  Without the optimism that it can be done, leaders will never even try to accomplish this hardest of tasks.  Leaders that successfully accomplish the other fundamentals and then have the heart to love all of those around them – so much that they spread that love across the organization – will truly have mastered the Heart of Leadership.

Continue the journey here in part 2 – Team First