Most aspiring CEOs don’t sit around pondering how to be more hesitant.
Perhaps it’s time they did.
As Sam Walker, deputy editor at the Wall Street Journal notes, “Most reluctant leaders, [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower included, don’t have big personalities. They achieve status in organizations by lowering themselves in relation to their subordinates and putting the group’s goals ahead of their own.”
Walker makes a convincing argument that today’s great leaders often aren’t hyper-ambitious or power-hungry. Rather, they’re extraordinary people whose passion and abilities led them to stardom. Instead of plotting ways to make it big through charisma and cunning, they put their heads down and forged forward. Even when they reached the C-suite, they stayed mentally in the trenches, eschewing the limelight.
Truly, this proposition sounds strange in an era when budding entrepreneurs vie for online attention and corporate ladder climbing seems an everyday sport. Yet studies like one from City University London’s Cass Business School back Walker’s claim. Using a mix of interviews, observation, and archival analysis, the researchers discovered that managers who exhibited reluctance fared better as well-respected, legitimately rewarded authority figures.
An investigation into what made 57 female CEOs successful, published in Harvard Business Review, offered similar results. The women tended to share traits such as being able to take risks and manage during uncertain times without losing their bearings. They also presented high degrees of humility: Only five of the female participants said they actively dreamed of becoming CEO. Most got the corner office by dint of hard work and hustle, not raw ambition or charm.
This isn’t to suggest that ambition is somehow a four-letter word. It isn’t, and competitiveness can be a boon when applied correctly. Still, craving power for power’s sake can portend a bad future for any boss.
Whether you’ve recently donned the CEO cap or have been in the C-suite a while, you can always improve. Below are three methods to become the leader your people need today:
- Position yourself as credible.
Employees rally around CEOs they trust. Earning “street cred” shows you’re worth their 24/7 support. Bill Green, CEO of LendingOne, which provides real estate bridge loans to non-owner-occupied investment properties, believes it’s critical that leaders have integrity and demonstrate reliability. “Without credibility, and a deep feeling of trust that this person is worth following in the first place, no amount of drive will keep people around through thick and thin,” he says.
How can you build rapport with your team? First, say what you do and do what you say. Being consistent and transparent goes a long way with the troops. Next, leave your temper at the door. Supervisors who lose their cool cause people to leave, not rally. Finally, know that you’re not invincible. Be open about continuing to educate yourself, which will encourage others to upskill themselves, too.
- Start embracing empathy.
When most of us were growing up, schools focused on IQ, but the corporate realm has benefited from an increased focus on EQ. Being able to empathize with others, even if you can’t directly feel their same emotions, is vital. Gallup’s Q12 Employee Engagement questionnaire quantifies high-performance work groups. Question 5 is built around how caring the manager is perceived to be, underscoring how essential emotional intelligence is for CEOs. Empathetic leadership prompts more honest communication, increased loyalty, and lower turnover.
To cultivate empathy in yourself, remember that you have two ears and one mouth. In other words, listen twice as often as you speak. Hear out workers without interrupting them, and take time to understand situations from their point of view rather than always trying to persuade or trick them into thinking like you do. “In-touch leaders need to make an effort to truly understand the challenges their employees face and adopt a servant-leadership mindset so they can provide whatever support is necessary to ensure success,” says “The Empathy Edge” author Maria Ross. “This requires active listening, getting curious, and asking more questions rather than simply barking orders.” Your conversations with employees should take on a less transactional, more collaborative aura.
- Connect with your customers.
Do you feel like a chasm exists between you and your customers? Bridge this gap or risk losing touch with your target audience. “When CEOs see the world through customers’ eyes, it helps their companies better organize and mobilize employees around client needs. Connecting with someone’s emotional needs will create brand loyalty,” explains Walter Miranda, president of retail design and intelligence provider Harbor Retail. Without a true commitment to knowing the whole customer, you’re just phoning it in.
Of course, you don’t need to literally get out and visit customers in person on a daily basis. At the same time, don’t shy away from handling customer calls or going “Undercover Boss” in a not-so-undercover way. Research from Deloitte shows 60% of loyal buyers speak emotionally about the brands they appreciate. The more you understand their deeper connection to your offerings, the more responsive, consistent, and reliable your company can be to the people you serve.
So put away the aggression and shelve the ruthlessness. What your business deserves is a humble CEO led by a mission to do right by employees and customers. Worry about the man or woman in the mirror last.
Written by Rhett Power. Have you read?
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