Many intelligent, dedicated professionals practice the time-honored tradition of uninspiring leadership. They don’t do it on purpose, it’s just that they’re used to the “Giving Orders and Controlling People” model of leadership. Uninspiring leadership doesn’t have to be the norm because there are positive alternatives available to anyone who chooses to use them. The first step to shifting your leadership approach is to assess whether you practice uninspiring leadership, that is, behaviors like the following:
- Lack of empathy.
- Getting angry at people.
- Not trusting employees.
- Lacking organization.
- Not delegating.
- Admitting mistakes.
- Not believing change is possible.
- Adhering to one way of doing things.
- Continuing to do things that don’t work.
- Thinking you have all the answers.
- Resistance to new ideas or approaches.
- Not listening to people.
- Imposing solutions from outside.
- Not asking for or valuing employee input.
- Lack of self-awareness.
If you want to do the things on this list, you’re welcome to and you’ll see results based on your actions. If you’d rather inspire yourself and others, then you’ll do the opposite of these things, for example: If you don’t currently delegate effectively, work on learning how to delegate. Inspiring leadership is about having the self-awareness to let go of the thoughts and behaviors that don’t work and replacing them with new approaches that yield positive results. This gives you the power to choose how you think and behave in the workplace and what kind of leadership style you prefer. What will you do to practice inspiring leadership?
I talk with a lot of well-meaning leaders and professionals who want to provide leadership, effective communication or team building workshops for their employees. They tell me what their workplaces are like, share a laundry list of difficult challenges and situations and then expect to fix everything in a two-hour workshop. What they may not yet realize is that behavior only changes over time, here are some reasons why:
- People get used to doing things a certain way.
- People fall into habits.
- People like order and predictability.
- People will endure almost anything as long as it’s familiar.
- People are uncomfortable with change.
Leaders who practice self-awareness understand that their thoughts and actions can encourage behavioral change in the workplace or stifle it. Change requires deliberate and continuous effort as well as a move from short-term thinking to long-term education. A single workshop might inspire someone to briefly adjust the way they do things but, for the most part, they’ll revert back to their old behaviors if ongoing support isn’t provided. What will you do to change behavior over time?
There are countless smart, well-intentioned people in leadership positions who limit their organization’s success without even knowing it because they behave in ways that hinder growth and progress. What they may not yet realize is that leaders can consciously choose to behave in ways that increase success rather than impede it, let’s look at some examples of both approaches:
Behaviors that Limit Success
Need to control everything and project authority.
Only one vision.
Resistance to change.
Inability to listen.
Behaviors that Increase Success
Let go of the need for power and control.
Entertain new ideas.
See things from more than one perspective.
Be willing to change.
Listen to people actively and often.
Work on being a secure, balanced individual.
A big part of self-awareness is understanding how your behaviors impact how you and your employees function. Even if your organization is already highly successful, you can practice positive behaviors to make things run even more smoothly. It all starts with being willing to evaluate your own leadership behaviors. What will you do to lead in a way that encourages success?
A large percentage of leaders create toxic workplaces and don’t even know it because it feels so normal. They go through their days behaving in ways that are detrimental to themselves and their employees because they’ve always done it that way. Workplace habits are hard to interrupt unless leaders consciously decide to do something else. Here are some leadership behaviors that are common in a toxic workplace:
- Shouting orders.
- Not listening to people.
- Not allowing people to have a voice.
- Underpaying employees.
- Not giving people time off to recharge or balance their lives.
- Behavior correction through punishment.
- Imposing strict hierarchy.
- Like it or there’s the door attitude.
- Getting angry or behaving disrespectfully.
- Putting employees under constant stress.
- Sticking people in boxes.
- Limiting creativity or self-expression.
The standard reaction when I point out these toxic behaviors is one of surprise or confusion because so many of our workplaces function based on these types of actions. The key to building a happy and productive workplace is being able to envision a workplace where empathic, positive practices are the norm. A healthy workplace would likely value these behaviors:
- Asking people to do things in a kind way.
- Encouraging people to use their voices.
- Paying a living wage.
- Giving people generous time off.
- Helping people find their own best behaviors.
- Creating a horizontal organizational structure.
- Helping people generate their own solutions to difficult issues.
- Behaving kindly, compassionately and respectfully.
- Building a workplace that doesn’t stress people out.
- Allowing people to use their talents and abilities.
- Welcoming creativity and individuality.
Many leaders are highly skeptical of this type of approach and don’t think it’s possible or practical; which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because, if you don’t believe you can create a healthy workplace, you won’t. It takes time, energy, self-awareness and commitment to design a work environment where leaders and employees behave positively but it feels great when you achieve it. What will you do to create a healthy workplace?
Your leadership style reflects what you believe about the world: If you think change is undesirable, your workplace will reflect that perspective; if you believe that trying new things is advantageous, your workplace will move in that direction. Your beliefs impact how your organization functions and sends your employees distinct messages about their roles and importance. Let’s look at two leadership belief systems and the underlying messages they broadcast:
We’ve Always Done It this Way
Don’t rock the boat.
Do as you’re told.
Change is scary.
Keep things as they’ve always been.
Flexibility is weakness.
Follow the rules.
Know your place.
Keep your ideas to yourself.
There’s only one way to solve a problem, my way.
Self-awareness is discouraged.
Something New, Better or Different Is Possible
Shake things up.
Do things based on your own judgement.
Be open to trying new things.
Flexibility is agility.
There are no rules.
Design your own role.
Share your ideas freely.
There are many ways to solve a problem.
Self-awareness is valued.
When I describe these two leadership approaches in my workshops, someone will say something like, “There has to be order and someone has to be in charge, you can’t just let everyone do what they want,” to which I answer, “Why not?” Leaders can design any type of workplace they want. They can give their employees power by allowing them to think and act independently, develop new ideas and question current practices or they can keep making people toe the line and do what’s always been done. The only obstacle is what they believe is possible. Which approach will you choose and why?
Many leaders are in a position where they tell employees what to do and that’s the end of the thinking process. A less-explored approach involves critical thinking, which is where you give employees the opportunity to arrive at their own insights rather than being dependent on you. Here are some ideas on how
to practice both leadership approaches, with and without critical thinking:
How to Practice Leadership without Thinking
- Tell people what to do.
- Supervise them constantly.
- Micromanage them.
- Dole out information only in small amounts.
- Give a lot of orders.
- Take the lead on everything.
- Ask for employees’ input but always go with your ideas.
- Remind people that you make all the decisions.
- Criticize instead of praise.
- Marvel at what a wonderful leader you are.
How to Practice Leadership that Encourages Critical Thinking
- Encourage your employees to decide where to start working on any given project.
- Assume people are smart enough to do it.
- Let them know you’re available if they have any questions or need any resources.
- Encourage them to come up with their own approach to completing the project.
- Allow people to share their insights about how the project went and make adjustments.
Inspirational leadership is about allowing people to think creatively and autonomously rather than being dependent on you. Employees who think for themselves are better prepared to deal with workplace challenges and contribute to building a healthy workplace. What will you do to encourage more critical thinking in your organization?
Leaders often get stuck putting out fires or reacting to emergencies all day and forget that they’re the person who sets the example for how people behave in the workplace. Leaders who think expansively move above the fray are able to design healthy, highly functional organizations where people treat each other well and get a lot done. Here are some examples of expansive versus constrictive leadership thinking:
Examples of Constrictive Leadership Thinking
We’ve always done it that way.
Employees should stay in their place.
There’s only one way to do things.
Workplaces are, by nature, rough and chaotic.
People aren’t to be trusted.
You’ve got to tell employees what to do or they won’t do it.
People should stick to the rules.
Employee self-awareness isn’t a priority.
Examples of Expansive Leadership Thinking
Let’s try something new.
Let’s use our employees’ feedback and ideas.
There are many ways to do things.
Workplaces can be kind and calm.
We trust our people.
We encourage employees to motivate themselves.
We’re flexible on the rules.
We help leaders and employees build self-awareness.
Many well-meaning leaders miss opportunities to succeed on a higher level because they can’t envision anything beyond the day to day struggle. Expansive thinking is the opposite of what we do in most of our workplaces, it’s an approach that moves past the chaos to calmly and deliberately designing a healthy, flexible and dynamic workplace. What will you do to practice expansive leadership thinking?