Leadership: Words of Wisdom

Over the years, a plethora of leadership definitions, models, styles, qualities, and theories have been touted and tested. In my view, the best definition of leadership comes from a good friend of mine, Mark Sanborn. “Leadership is the ability to help others and organizations to surpass themselves.” In other words, true leaders leave an organization in a better place.

There is a lot in the media right now about “crisis leadership” due to the COVID-19 pandemic and protests. In fact, the current crisis situations create a well-lit stage that showcases both good and bad leadership. In my opinion, all great leaders share three essential qualities.

I think the most important quality right now is trust. A true leader must earn – and keep – people’s trust. But how do you build trust? Many organizations have tried to cultivate or demonstrate trust with pricey rope courses, blindfold exercises and other activities.

The only way to build trust in a relationship is to make and keep promises. It only takes minutes to destroy an employee or customer’s trust, followed by the fallout of a social media explosion. Do you do what you say you are going to do? Do your employees, peers and customers trust you?

Decision making
Decision making is another key quality of great leaders. One must be willing to take ownership and responsibility and not be afraid to make the tough decisions. It is very costly for a person in a leadership role to continually put off making decisions. Do people come to you when tough decisions need to be made? Or do they go elsewhere?

Have you ever worked with, or for, a great leader who was not a great communicator? I doubt it! Through both oral and written skills, leaders can influence others for good. Great leaders have the ability to teach and inspire excellence in others.

Great leaders are also great listeners. I recommend Covey’s Habit #5: “Seek first to understand…then seek to be understood.” This holds true for personnel at all levels. I’ve witnessed way too many situations in which an employee doesn’t listen to the customer to understand; the results for the company are inevitably negative.

Best words of leadership
The following mnemonic helps remind us to incorporate phrases into our communications that build trust, relationships, and teamwork – and ultimately, our effectiveness as leaders.

The six best words of leadership are, “I admit I made a mistake.” Nobody is 100 percent perfect. We all make mistakes. Being vulnerable in a leadership role and admitting that we made a mistake goes a long way toward building trust and relationships.

The five best words in leadership are, “I am proud of you.” Ken Blanchard has stated that the best way to develop people is to catch them doing something right and let them know. We all know how it makes us feel when we hear words or recognition or praise.

I worked as a maintenance planner many years ago for a large food manufacturing company. When I started, it was time for the annual maintenance parts inventory, which usually took three days to complete. The head storekeeper, who normally would have conducted the inventory, was out, so I put the assistant storekeeper in charge. She was scared to take the lead. I told her to do an honest and accurate inventory – and that I would be counting the power transmission parts and working for her during the inventory process.

She worked extremely hard and completed the first honest and accurate maintenance inventory in years at that company. After completion, I told her how proud of her I was and what a great job she did. I thought her jaw was going to hit the ground. She looked up at me and told me that in the 17 years she had worked for the company, nobody had ever said anything like that to her before. Going forward, she was one of the hardest working and most loyal employees that ever reported to me.

The four best words in leadership are, “What is your opinion?” When this question is asked with sincerity, it makes employees feel that they matter. It is a great way to engage personnel.

The three best words in leadership are, “Let’s do this.” Sometimes a leader just needs to work side by side with employees to complete a project or get through a tough challenge. During these times, employees see their leader as one of them. It motivates employees and makes them feel as though they are part of a team.

The two best words in leadership are, “Thank you.” How does it make us feel when we do something for someone, and they thank us? Doesn’t it make us want to do something else for that person to repeat the feeling a simple thank you brings?

In another past position, as a regional director of training and safety, I was supported by an excellent administrative assistant. I wanted to come up with a different way to say “thank you” for her efforts for the team. I decided to make a poster board with candy bars and statements that let her know of my sincere appreciation. I thought it was just a simple gesture and hoped it was meaningful to her. It was about three months later that her daughter stopped by the office to see her mom. She told me that her mom still had that poster up at their house and that it meant so much to her.

The single best word in leadership is, “We.” To truly know that one is working as part of a team, rather than in an “us versus them” dynamic, is a powerful and inspiring feeling. If you think of the leaders that have inspired you, I am sure you will recall that they used “we” language much more frequently than “me” language.

I hope that something here has sparked an interest – that you will introduce leadership words of wisdom and see how they impact your organization. I challenge you to select and cultivate one quality of leadership and do something to increase your circle of influence for good. I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Keith Howes has spent over 30 years in leadership roles in the private, public, education and nonprofit sectors, with extensive study and experience in leadership training program development. He welcomes the opportunity to share thoughts and tips about what he’s learned along the way. Contact him at [email protected] or 916-871-0086.