What does it mean to be a leader? How can you bring people together? Answering these questions is typically a part of navigating adolescence and charting a course into stable adulthood, but that path may be more challenging today than ever before.
After all, the young people of today often lack clear role models. The internet is a wonderful tool, but also scatters focus, weakening the significance of many traditionally-important teachers (parents, most notably) — and the all-pervasive social media platforms are often divisive, encouraging people to be glib, detached, and even cruel.
So how can we help them to make clear-headed decisions about the types of people they want to become? We must provide sensible advice wherever possible to help them see what it truly means to be a leader: how they can step up, take charge, and find ways to overcome everyday conflicts to achieve common goals. Here’s what they really need to know:
Varying perspectives are invaluable
A classic leadership mistake is to consistently favor people who agree with you. Often, that leads to being surrounded by sycophants: people who will always be vocal in supporting you, regardless of what they actually think, all so they can maintain your approval. This is a bad idea because your thoughts, opinions and plans need to be challenged.
Great leadership understands that the current ways aren’t inherently superior, and that better methods can come along at any time. If they appear and you don’t notice them because you’re completely set in your ways, you’ll sabotage your future prospects, as well as those of the people following your lead.
Consequently, it’s beneficial to seek contradiction — to ask that people assess your ideas without bias, and be fearless in letting you know when they disagree with you. And when they do, you must reward that resolve, regardless of how undermined you may feel. Being more flexible and embracing new ideas will make you a better leader.
It’s important to lead by example
Great businesses — and great teams in general — are forged through close bonds of trust and companionship (vital elements of transformational leadership), with everyone striving to do their absolute best.
As such, moving into a leadership position shouldn’t be about the pursuit of inactivity, or delegating all the challenge away so you can get ahead while doing as little as possible but taking all of the credit.
If you take that approach, you’ll inspire it in those you’re leading, and the results will be misery, boredom, and alienation. No amount of berating or cajoling will force people to care more about what’s going on. But if you resolve to know more, work harder, and be more enthusiastic than everyone you’re leading (even if you fall short of that ambition), you’ll set a great precedent.
Seeing that you’re that driven even though you don’t really need to be will encourage everyone else to do their best as well — not because they feel obliged to, but because they want to feel part of something positive and meaningful.
Everyone communicates differently
How do you prefer to communicate with others as part of a team? Do you like to keep the embers of a conversation stoked at all times, with a constant hum of chatter to help you feel connected to others? Do you prefer to isolate yourself however possible, working with minimal distractions and communicating only when practically necessary?
You might fall into one of those two camps, or you might be somewhere in the middle. The point is that everyone has a different communicative style, and good leadership doesn’t seek to fit people into identical positions: it acknowledges that they’ll be happier and more productive when allowed (to whatever extent is practical) to communicate the way they’d prefer to.
This also means that a great leader knows how to adjust their tone and lexis as needed. There’s no sense in seeking to motivate people exclusively through harsh words and a raised voice, for instance: some of them will be motivated by that aggression, but others will be deflated by it, and would respond far better to empathy and positive reinforcement.
In the end, you have to trust people
The micromanaging leader is the bane of many workers’ lives. Often, they’ll demand innovation and initiative, yet shut down any efforts to get anything tangible done, insisting that everything must be run by them for approval first. Taking this route can protect you from the occasional mistake, true, but it will hugely sabotage your long-term prospects.
Here’s why: people won’t grow and develop unless they’re allowed to make decisions of real consequence. This is something that the biggest businesses in the world understand very well. Tobias Lütke, CEO of Shopify (creator of a leading tool for building ecommerce websites), said the following when interviewed and asked about startup culture;
“When we start new interns in our R&D team, we make sure that within their first week they actually make a change to Shopify that impacts our customers. Minutes after they send the code over, it’s going to be in front of a hundred million shoppers.”
Will that kind of policy lead to some mishaps? Probably, yes — but it’s so worth it, because it establishes personal investment and shows that you’re committed to making everyone working under you a valuable and significant addition to the team.
Respect must be earned
Becoming an authority figure might mean that you have the credentials, experience and skills to lead others (though it doesn’t guarantee that, because questionable leadership decisions are commonplace), but that won’t win you respect from the people you’re leading.
Anyone unfamiliar with you will need to spend some time engaging with you to decide what they make of you — and anyone who knew you beforehand will need to assess you in a completely new light.
And while your position might allow you to issue orders, you won’t be a true leader until the people you’re leading respect you to the extent that they follow you because they believe in you, not because they’re required to. Otherwise, you’ll run the risk of encountering indifference and even malicious compliance (someone obeying an order in a way that betrays the spirit of it).
So being a leader isn’t about throwing your weight around and intimidating people into submitting to your rule. It’s about showing why you deserve to be in that position. Manage that, and you’ll have more impact with a whisper than a lesser leader could achieve with a shout.
Young people today have so many sources of information seeking their attention that it’s completely understandable for them to be confused about what it means to be a leader.
The sooner they learn these basic leadership principles, the more effectively they can take charge and help others thrive in the process.
About the Author
Patrick Foster is an Ecommerce Consultant for Ecommerce Tips, an industry-leading ecommerce blog dedicated to sharing business and entrepreneurial insights from the sector. Follow them on Twitter @myecommercetips.