Three Essential Truths for Effective Leadership

By: Jeff Cowart, MAH

[box]A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way. – John C. Maxwell[/box]

When I was new to leadership, one of the most jarring truths I heard from a seasoned leader was, “Always remember that your own professional reputation is shaped primarily by the performance and culture of the team you lead.”

Frankly, that was disturbing, because I was not particularly enamored with the work ethic and attitude of some of the people on my newly inherited team.

I learned quickly through my own experience, though, the truth of that advice. But more importantly, I learned that if things were going to change, I had to step up to embrace the responsibility of my role and lead the way.

While there are many great leadership principles, over the years I personally have found three essential keys:

1. All employees have two critical needs: 

  1. A sense that the work is meaningful and
  2. A sense of self-worth.

Both elements are directly tied to the approach and behavior of the leader. The leader either sets the tone that work is merely a set of tasks to be accomplished regardless of the team personalities involved, or that work is an important part of a larger mission into which the creative assets of each team member are integrated. The leader who is too rigid in process, hung up on control, married to micromanagement, and visibly frazzled regularly is communicating a message that undermines meaningful work and the value of the individual in the team.

2. Second is understanding that the true essence of communication is not what we say or what we write, but what we actually doPeople need to believe in what they are doing, and it falls apart if the leader talks a good game but behaves differently. Good leaders learn that people can do almost anything if they want to do it, are trained to do it, and understand the reason for doing it. The leader has the responsibility to clearly articulate the vision, and then lead by example in the practice of achieving it.

3. Perhaps the most important element is delegation. I came into the leadership role as a rugged individualist who had been noticed for being good at my craft. When it came time to empower team members, I did not always trust them to do it right, or felt that no one else really knew how to do it as well as me. I might rationalize that it would take longer to explain it to someone that to just do it myself.

I learned over time that trust is the foundation of a high-performing team and is best demonstrated through delegation. Effective delegation requires clear and understandable assignments, a reasonable allocation of time and resources to do the job,  giving the team member real responsibility and authority to act, meaningful, but not overbearing, oversight, and non-punitive acceptance of the outcome good or bad, with follow up praise or teaching accordingly.

The final piece of sound advice I was given was: “If you don’t like the performance of your team, who are you waiting for to lead them?”