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Are you a follower or a Supporter?

I remain forever inspired by the words of John F Kennedy as part of his inauguration as the 35th President of the United States held in Washington on Friday, January 20, 1961.

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

In a very real way Kennedy reminded us all that life is not all one-way traffic, it’s not always about what’s in it for me? Sometimes it’s important to take time to think about what we give. And the same concept applies in the workplace. Whilst our leaders are there to inspire, direct and motivate us they are also human and have the same needs of recognition and inclusion as the rest of us.

And so my fellow workmates: ask not what your leader can do for you; ask what you can do for your leader.

Leaders are naturally motivated by challenge but they need more that the adrenalin of their role to inspire them. They need to hear words designed to fuel their passion for leading. This is true regardless of whether or not the leader is considered a “good” leader. In fact, in my experience a mildly successful leader can transform into a superior leader simply by receiving words of encouragement.

Looking at a host of leaders and a myriad of engagements I have had with them, I have identified four phrases that I regularly use when speaking with my leader. Here are the four recurring phrases I have needed to say to my leader or I felt they needed to hear from me. But don’t be fooled most of my CEO’s neither expected nor invited my comments. Many of them were thick-skinned, highly confident people too proud or fearful to appear human and often at times showed no interest in the ramblings of their “odd HR guy”. But in spite of all of that I still believed I needed to say:

“You are making a difference” – Our leaders are inspired by progress. There isn’t a leader in industry or commerce today that does not want to be meaningful and worthwhile. Numbers, whilst important, aren’t the best indicators of success. My greatest mentor took our manufacturing organisation from loss making to breakeven in less than three years but never managed to make a profit and often felt he had failed. But that was because corporately we were required to buy raw materials from our sister organisations often at a higher price than the open market. He was making a difference and I told him so. Context is always relative he made a huge difference to that organisation and needed to hear it.

“I trust you” – Leadership is all about influence. Leaders are acutely aware that if they are not trusted, no one is truly following them. To know you have someone in your corner, who believes in you is the greatest motivation of all. A workforce that addresses its leaders’ words insincerely destines their organisation to mediocrity. Change only happens when people actively trust in their leader; lip service is what happens when they don’t. As the HRD of a large public body I recall the CEO charging the organisation to “change or die” he presented a bold strategy that needed the workforce to embrace an exciting new approach and evolve into a new flexible organisation that could capture the imagination of our customer. The alternative was that we would be subsumed into a conglomerate of other parts and forever lose our unique identify and contribution. The workforce did not trust the leader and I went back a few years later to share in the meal to recognise its closure. As Brian Tracy put it “The glue that holds all relationships together – including the relationship between the leader and the led – is trust, and trust is based on integrity”

“I believe in you” – Leadership is at times a very lonely role. For some the ivory tower is less of a sanctuary and more of a prison. Sooner or later every leader except the complete psychopath will have need of the company of a friend or confidant. As human beings and most leaders fall into this bracket they desire social interaction and will fear just like the rest of us the idea of being alone. In one of my HRD roles the CEO undertook a fundamental review of his top team which resulted in a very necessary 75% cull. During the process I saw him hesitate and falter and took the opportunity to speak to him privately and confirm to him that I believed his original thinking was correct. I can still recall his words to me “I have never felt as alone as I do now, your words may seem nothing to you yet mean everything to me”.  Having someone in your corner who will be there even when things don’t look or feel successful is what keeps a plan on target.

“I’ll follow your lead” – Most leaders question their ability at some point in their career. This often appears to us as observers and thoughtful consideration when in fact they simply doubt their own ability. Just like most human beings, leaders are often struck with sudden panic about making the first move towards something new. The best leaders I have worked for have all admitted to never being 100% certain. That’s where we come in. When the team is ready and willing to trust the judgement of their leader and step out even when the outcome remains uncertain it’s then that a leader truly feels inspired and operates at their most effective.  As part of a manufacturing organisation linked to an international company I worked with the rest of the management team and the CEO on an organisational restructure that fundamentally would change the shape and workflows of the organisation. Days before we launched the plan the Group CEO sent a letter reminding the local CEO that it was “on his head” if it didn’t work. He read the letter out to the rest of the team and in almost one voice the management team replied “it’s on OUR heads”

Are you playing follow-the-leader or are you supporting your leader? The two are very different.  Following is an act of blind obedience and compliance with little interest or commitment to the intentions of your leader. Supporting your leader is a deliberate act of faith and confidence. If you’re supporting your leader you are deliberately making his or her job even easier and possibly even more successful. And the most effective way to do this is to speak words of encouragement, and do it today.

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