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How to Be a Great Leader

By Alan Zimmerman, Ph.D

"Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily,
even if you had no title or position."
--Brian Tracy

Have you ever wondered why some good, competent, nice people fail so miserably in their attempts to lead others? I certainly have. And so has speaker and author Phillip Van Hooser. In fact, he asked hundreds of people nationwide, "If you could tell your supervisor/manager one practical thing he/she needs to know about leading people, what would it be?" He received some wonderfully helpful responses, and of course, that excited me ... because his findings reinforced my research on the topic. Among the most important pieces of advice were the following:

1. NEVER FORGET ... you're always setting an example.
Don't kid yourself. Your coworkers watch everything you do and everything you say. And from their observations, they deduce what is important and not important in the organization.

That being the case, you need to be consciously aware of the example you're setting. Is your example bringing out the best in people or inadvertently reinforcing the worst?

As syndicated columnist Josh Hinds puts it, "Whether or not we realize it, each of us has within us the ability to set some kind of example for people. Knowing this would you rather be the one known for being the one who encouraged others, or the one who inadvertently discouraged those around you?" And then ...

2. WALK your talk.
You simply cannot say one thing and do another and expect your leadership to work. You can't preach the importance of returning customer phone calls but not do it yourself. You can't emphasize punctuality at meetings but show up late. And you can't talk about the importance of a good attitude but never have one.

Of course, walking your talk sounds like nothing more than honesty or ethics. But it also has a very practical, motivational side to it. As one person said so very well, your walk talks and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.

Or put another way, if you're not excited about what you're doing, it's a sure bet your employees won't be excited about it either. Enthusiasm spreads from top down.

It's kind of like the three men working in a quarry, all doing the same job, but all with different bosses. The first boss didn't care about anything; the second boss just wanted to put in his day's work and get out of there, and the third boss had a vision for the work being done. When their employees were asked about their jobs, the man who worked for the first boss said all he did was lift rocks. The man who worked for the second boss said he was simply a poor man who toiled all day long, from dawn to dusk, earning a living. But the man who worked for the third boss responded with enthusiasm, saying he was building a cathedral.

3. Show your employees that you actually CARE about them.
You know the old saying, "Your people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." And it's still true and always will be true.

You've got to show a genuine interest in your employees. Make it a point to ask your employees how their family is doing. And when you learn that a family member is ill, has had an accident, just entered college, got married, had a child, or whatever, follow up.

The best leaders seem to know that it's not only "nice" to treat their employees with caring, it's also good business. As I always tell my audiences, "Your people will go to the ends of the earth for you when they know that you care about them as individuals."

Maybe that's why Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM said, "Really big people are, above everything else, courteous, considerate and generous - not just to some people in some circumstances - but to everyone all the time." He knew it was the right thing to do, not just personally but professionally and organizationally as well.

Or as Philip Van Hooser says, "How can we reasonably expect our employees, our followers, to respond to our leadership if we have not made every effort to let them know that we are there for them?"

So let me ask you, do your people know ... do they REALLY know you care about them? Do you always follow Jennie Jerome Churchill's advice, the mother of Prime Minister Winston Churchill? She always said you should, "Treat your friends as you do your pictures, and place them in their best light."

4. CLEAR the path.
Most people want to do a good job, but there may be some factors that make it very difficult ... if not impossible ... for them to do a good job. So it's your responsibility to clear the path as much as possible. Get rid of the obstacles that get in the way of your people's success and achievement.

That's what John Manning, VP of the WOW Department at Commerce Bank, does. As he says, "At Commerce Bank we have a 'Kill a Stupid Rule' Program. If you identify a rule that prevents you from wowing customers, we'll pay you fifty bucks."

It's a great program. The employees know what the stupid rules are, and with this new program, they are encouraged to get rid of those rules and give the best possible service. They are motivated to keep the WOW factor alive and healthy in their organization. So you need to ask yourself what kind of obstacles are getting in the way of your employees' peak performance? And what are you doing to clear those obstacles out of their path?

Now I realize in some situations there's little you can do about some of the obstacles. If that's the case, keep your discontent to yourself ... or share it only with those who have the power to rectify the situation. As Van Hooser warns, "Complaining openly to followers, or even peers, can unfortunately reduce an otherwise respected leader to the status of a whining malcontent."

Finally, in our research, we found employees wanting to tell their bosses to ...

5. TRUST your people.
There's a fine line between being too strict and too lenient with your employees. If you're too strict, they don't feel trusted. And if you're too lenient, they think you don't care.

When you're too strict, or when you're micromanaging your employees, you're incessantly probing, questioning, analyzing, criticizing and second guessing every decision made or action taken by your followers. And after you do that long enough, your employees eventually feel like "you might as well go out there and do it yourself because you'll never trust me to get it right."

It takes a bit of trust to give your people some room to maneuver and make their own decisions. But as management guru Peter Drucker says, "In every success story, you find someone who has made a courageous decision." And that someone could be the boss or the employees.

Successful leaders and motivating managers know there is more than one way to successfully complete most jobs. So they, in essence, tell their employees, "Here's your rope. Go out there and see what you can accomplish. If you hang yourself, together we'll figure out what went wrong. I want you to have enough rope to discover new opportunities for the organization."

Truth be known, most of the time, an employee may not do a job exactly the way you would have done it. But the return on your trust investment ... more often than not ... is a more loyal, happy, involved and accountable employee.

Find at least one way to show every one of your coworkers this week that you really, really care about him or her.

As a best-selling author and Hall of Fame professional speaker, Dr. Alan Zimmerman has taught more than one million people in 48 states and 22 countries how to keep a positive attitude on and off the job. In his book, PIVOT: How One Turn In Attitude Can Lead To Success, Dr. Zimmerman outlines the exact steps you must take to get the results you want in any situation. Go to Alan's site for more information.
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