Free article: Finding a way through the jungle: The essence of leadership

Published: Thursday, 27 March 2014

Louise Wingrove gives practical advice on how to become a leader your team will want to follow.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes a leader as the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation and yells, ‘Wrong jungle!’ Certainly, as leaders we need to lead our team in the right direction. But in this time of change, how should we be leading? How do we navigate through the jungle?

Communicate your vision

Think of some of the great political and business leaders of the past 100 years: Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher, Steve Jobs – okay, so the jury may still be out on Margaret Thatcher! The characteristic that defined all these leaders was their ability to communicate. They were fantastic speakers with a clear vision, whose messages inspired millions.

Being able to communicate effectively and to influence others is one of the key skills of effective leadership. King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is full of the language of persuasion and hope, a vision for a better future; it was a passionate message that moved people and changed history.

The ability to convey our vision and direction, whatever our cause or organisation, and to bring others along with us, is key to our success as leaders. If we’re not able to articulate our vision and persuade others to come with us, then we fail in leadership: without followers, we cannot lead.

Take Apple. The employees of Apple are incredibly loyal to their brand. Much of that loyalty came from Steve Jobs’ ability to communicate his vision to his team. Jobs would meet with his senior executives every week to clarify the goals and direction of the company. His executives would then communicate, direct and give feedback to their teams. Information would also come back up the chain so that every employee felt they had direct access to Jobs. In an organisation of 50,000 employees, every person knew where the business was headed and how they contributed to its success.

Knowing where you are going and what your goals are is a fundamental feature of any successful enterprise, whether a charity, school or billion-pound business. It’s the responsibility of the leadership team to make sure that everyone in the organisation understands their role and how it fits into the bigger picture of where the school is headed.

So as leaders we need to communicate the vision, direction and goals for our team and our school at every meeting, every presentation and every opportunity! We need to make sure that people hear and understand our message.

Be visible and listen

Successful leaders are ‘visible’ – they walk around their workplace, they know their team by name, they are great listeners to what’s happening in the organisation. President Bill Clinton remembered details about people; the names of their partners, their children’s ages. He was a great listener and his focused, warm eye contact communicated that what you said was important to him.

Motivate others

Great leaders have unwavering energy and ability to motivate others. Ernest Shackleton has been called ‘the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth’ after he saved the lives of his men when they were stranded on an Antarctic ice floe for two years. He repeatedly communicated his vision and kept up morale during their trek. He never let his men see him looking down – he knew that if his men lost their motivation the game was up. He ensured that his men took their musical instruments on their 1,200 mile journey and every evening they would get together to sing. Not only did all 27 men survive, but they did so in good spirits.

Keeping up morale and motivating your team are always important, but particularly so in challenging and uncertain times. With the recession, budget cuts and pension changes, it’s easy to let our motivation drop. As leaders we need to ensure that we present a confident, positive role model. We need to create opportunities for team relaxation and fun, as well as letting people know that they’re doing a good job. Most leaders don’t spend enough time praising their team and cultivating team morale, preferring instead to focus on the task. Achieving the task and team morale are inextricably linked. When morale is low, performance and results are low too.

Ask for feedback

Effective leaders ask for feedback from people they trust. Shackleton and Jobs regularly asked for feedback from their people. Feedback is your barometer indicating how things are, how others feel about you and what’s happening in the school. More often than not, though, we don’t hear about things until something goes wrong, since most people will run for the hills rather than give honest feedback to the boss.

So, as leaders we need to take the initiative and ask for feedback. There are, though, ways to ask for feedback that won’t send your team members reaching for a stiff drink.

  • Don’t put the other person on the spot. Ask them before they come to your meeting so that they can reflect properly and structure their message in a way that is constructive. Giving them time to prepare is better for both of you.
  • Avoid the, ‘What’s your feedback for me’ question. It usually gets the answer, ‘Everything’s fine’, which is no good for you. It’s because the question is too big, too vague and too threatening. You won’t get the information you need. Be more specific in your request. Instead, ask, ‘What’s one thing you think I’m doing well? What’s one thing I could do differently?’ You are much more likely to get specific information from these questions. You can then decide whether to change things or not. It’s your decision.
  • Always thank the person for their feedback. It’s more than likely that it took some courage to give it!

Make great decisions

Lastly, great leaders make great decisions. So be clear about where you want to get to, sharpen up your decision-making skills, look at the pros and the cons of the situation, listen to others but trust your own experience and, where necessary, use your intuition to make the right decision and lead your team through the jungle!

This article was first published in School Business Manager magazine

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