Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
As we move further from the specific challenges of 2020, there’s a huge elephant in the room that everyone’s avoiding for fear of being caught up in political tripwires — the state of leadership. We know last year accelerated many different areas, including technological advancements and social awareness. It also spawned a realization that there’s a reckoning coming, as study after study highlights the need for a shift in leadership principles.
As humans, we like to categorize. With leaders, for example, it might be elected, appointed or “natural-born.” With each of these categorizations, we carry some idea about what a leader looks like and how leadership works. Yet increasingly, we see that leaders can come from the streets, classrooms, boardrooms, press rooms and anywhere in-between. And leadership is often most effective when it’s uncategorized — rising organically around an idea and encouraging (or inspiring) like-minded people to follow along.
The Components of Competent Leadership
When I founded my company, I sought a framework to shape our culture. As someone who’s always trying to maximize what’s around me, I wanted to emphasize what made people effective, engaged, accountable, responsible and kind, because a workplace full of these people would, in turn, maximize what we could do for our customers as well as ourselves.
But prescribing behavior is not equal to belief. So it was important to design something genuine that grew from my own beliefs and resonated with others as authentic. That way, we could model and support each other in ways that felt right. In effect, I wanted to treat everyone as a leader and provide a blueprint to that end.
Through several revisions, I settled on the following qualities:
Do the right thing when no one’s looking. We know intrinsically what the truth is; we just have to value it within ourselves. When you operate with integrity, you’re orienting yourself by that truth compass. That might mean not putting something off till tomorrow that you just don’t feel like doing today. Or giving the benefit of the doubt to a colleague, customer or vendor. Perhaps the most important of these four factors: Integrity is about facing your personal responsibility in every situation.
Do it the right way every time. Discipline builds upon knowing the ethics of right and wrong and using the correct systems and procedures to get something done. In other words, no shortcuts. When we operate without discipline in the workplace, we’re “lucky” if the result is only a poor-quality product, lost money or damaged credibility. In certain instances or industries, it could mean causing physical injury or worse to yourself or others.
Value the people, places and things in your life. Respect is acknowledging the idea that little things add up, and those small decisions roll up to impact other people’s lives in ways that we might not yet see. In the workplace, that means recognizing we have limited resources, and we have to use them in a way that maximizes productivity, shareholder value and customer satisfaction.
Create peace through a shared understanding. Maya Angelou is often attributed to having said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Empathy builds upon the respect needed to maximize everyone’s potential by helping us imagine ourselves in the shoes of the person on the other end of the phone or the email and reflect on what they’re going through.
Understanding the True Value of Leadership
One way we value the things in our lives is by thinking about what those things give us. That has the potential to sound selfish, but it’s really about meeting our needs. Good leadership can play that provider role, assuming we recognize, understand and appreciate its purpose and potential power.
The truth is, no one is a perfect leader. No one is a perfect anything. Humanity is complex to navigate and we’ll all make bad judgment calls or mistakes. The best leaders value those mistakes along the way because they represent opportunity. It’s a privilege, in fact, to have pushed a boundary and recovered enough to note it, learn from it and move on to something even better.
That next-level stage can only happen through forgiveness. Because if you’re beating yourself up over every stumble, you’re no longer capable of doing the work you need to do as a leader. It’s that kind of self-awareness and vulnerability that people can identify with and, in turn, encourages them to find ways to support you in working toward a common goal.
I’ve found that a combination of testing limits, acting within the four competencies I’ve outlined and giving myself permission to fail, have helped me maintain my balance. I also believe what’s key to achieving that balance is knowing the proper place for a leader. It’s about giving more than you get and understanding your sole purpose is to serve the people who choose to follow you by helping to remove roadblocks, ambiguities or a lack of resources.
If last year taught us nothing else, it’s that we’re reliant on others, and in many instances, this reliance requires a leap of faith. But with trust and faith seemingly in short supply, the only way for us to really move forward tomorrow is to reexamine, reprioritize and reimagine how we approach leadership today.