How observing others can train you more effectively than most leadership training can

Previously, I posted “Anyone can create a good leader (more effectively than most leadership training can)”. It was about the importance of reinforcing positive leadership behaviors you see around you.

This time I’d like to emphasize what we can learn every day from leadership examples around us. From positive examples, as described in the previous post, but also from (at first) seemingly random examples.

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a group in the restaurant of a hotel. The person who paid, added a tip on the credit card slip in the appropriate slot. When the waitress returned the credit card, she said: “The tip you added won’t go to the hotel staff. So I didn’t charge you for it…” We left the restaurant stunned.

Apparently, she preferred us to keep the money instead of paying it to the hotel. She probably thought: if the hotel owner doesn’t allow the staff to earn a bit extra for work well done, what is the point of a customer paying extra? And indeed, we meant the tip to go to the personnel, and not end up in the hotel owner’s pocket. However, although we appreciated her honesty, it left us with a strange impression of the place. How does this hotel treat it’s employees? Why does this employee feel more sympathetic to the customer than to her boss, so much so, that she gives money back to the customer?

Of course we don’t know the whole story. There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation why the staff is not paid their tips (maybe their base salary is much higher than restaurants in the neighborhood, or they get compensated another way). Whatever the situation is, the personnel clearly isn’t happy. This has an effect on being able to attract and retain good staff. It also has an effect on customers. A customer’s impression is quite important in an industry based on service. And this didn’t leave a great impression.

When you are a manager, you don’t want your employees to behave like that. Of course, you can’t always be their most favorite and popular person. But you certainly don’t want to turn your employees against the company.

Turn situations like this into questions about your own team. What are your people telling customers? What kind of impression does the company want to give customers? And if there’s a discrepancy, what is the cause? Are your people committed to the organization, and want to boost it forward? Or are they just earning their money, while frantically looking for other, more interesting, opportunities?

Understand what is happening in your team, and why it is happening. And address issues when they arise.

And keep your eyes peeled, as interesting leadership lessons like these come along every day.

Do you put your people first, or the organization?

In my experience, the majority of leaders fall into two categories:

  • the ones that put their people first
  • and the ones that put their unit (organization, department) first.

It’s a chicken and egg situation: should you first take care of the employees (who can then take care of the organization), or of the organization (which can then take care of the employees)?

The first group believes a leader should ensure people are motivated and happy. They can come across as soft. While debating an important decision they might say things like ‘I want people to agree’. Or ‘This decision should impact people in a positive way’. They strongly believe people are at their best when their motivation is intrinsic, and they enjoy coming to work.

It might seem to others they believe the workplace should be a free-for-all just-do-what-you-like happy space. But that is not the case. Their basic believe is that the organization wouldn’t exist without its people, and motivated, fulfilled employees make a better and more profitable organization. In order to achieve this, the organization sometimes has to make sacrifices for the people. With good pay and secondary benefits, but also with molding a job to someone’s strengths, or giving people leeway when they need it. They are convinced that as a result, the organization will benefit as well.

The second group believes the organization and results should come first. Their basic believe is that the people wouldn’t be there if the organization didn’t do well. So instead of the organization having to make sacrifices for the people, they feel employees have to make sacrifices for the organization. They strongly believe the organization needs to thrive and can then take care of its people.

They can come across as tough, because they might say things like ‘X will have to do this job whether he likes it or not, because it is best for the organization’, or ‘We first and foremost need to deliver, no matter what it takes.’ Most of them do not believe results are so important that all other values should take a back seat, but they do believe that the best way to take care of your people is to focus on keeping the organization healthy and doing well.

Although I belong to the first group, I can see where the second group comes from. More importantly, I’m convinced the two groups need each other. People have different perspectives, and we should value that. If one group prevails, it leads to a singular culture and tunnel vision. Marrying the two beliefs often leads to meaningful discussions from a broad perspective, and better outcomes. Yes, you’ll have heated debates and deep-rooted differences of opinion. But it is needed for a well-balanced organization.

For a healthy, balanced approach, ask yourself:

  • Which category do you belong to?
  • And your colleagues?
  • Do you personally allow for others to share their vision, and to ensure a balanced approach in your organization?