You can spend piles of money on leadership development workshops and seminars and still end up with leaders who have more knowledge than wisdom. But wisdom is what it takes to build the trust that strong leadership requires, and that trust comes from building relationships on the job, day by day, week by week, one interaction at a time.
At the same time, trust between leaders and their team is easily damaged—all it takes is one ill-timed rant, one insensitive comment, one disrespectful interaction. Which is not to say that leaders can’t make mistakes, provided they are able to then listen openly to other people’s concerns or complaints. Great leaders have people around them whom they trust and who trust them enough to tell the truth—and great leaders have the self-confidence to hear that feedback without reacting defensively or with excuses.
Trust is also necessary for collaboration; teams must feel that they can trust each other and, crucially, their leader, if they are to open themselves up for successful collaboration. This is especially important when things get challenging, such as during times of change (and these days, change is constant in most organizations) or when there’s friction among team members. In that case, it is incumbent upon leaders to model behavior that keeps the team resilient and focused forward.
As I explain in my new book Leadership through Trust and Collaboration, building and maintaining trust is simple, even if it’s not always easy. As you will see in the following tips, the skills required are in the toolkit of simply being human. It’s just up to leaders to learn how to master them in tough moments of their day.
Remember the joy: I learned this and much more from my beloved brother, who imparted insightful personal leadership and life lessons as he was facing the cancer that ultimately took him from us. He pointed out that there is joy to be found every day, and leaders should both remember the joy that they take in their work and help their teams to always remember what drew them to the job. “You think you have problems, but you don’t,” Keith said. “All you have is opportunities.” And isn’t the opportunity to solve problems why people become leaders in the first place?
Be kind: Like I said: simple. Being kind is a bottom-line skill for building trust. Sometimes, when leaders are stressed, exhausted from putting out fires, or juggling too much at once, they forget to be kind—or maybe they’re just in too much of a hurry in today’s get-it-done-yesterday business climate. But the best leaders know how to present feedback in ways that are more helpful than painful, and that it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable. If people feel secure that you will be kind even when faced with difficulties, they will approach their work with enthusiasm rather than fear.
Stay focused on the big picture: Let’s say two members of your team have hit a rough spot in their collaboration and started bickering. Each of them comes to you individually with a list of tit-for-tat grievances. As a leader, you have choices in how you respond. You can get down in the weeds with them and try to deal with every little perceived injury, or you can step back and take a broader view in order to look for the underlying issue that might have triggered the problems. Perhaps it was a stressful weekend of work, a single regrettable email, or a basic misunderstanding of the project goals. Stepping back, considering the big picture, and reminding your team of their common goals and humanity can help defuse small problems before they damage trust and collaboration.
Master self-control: The truth is, everybody thinks they have self-control—until they don’t. Perhaps no one skill is more important to leadership (and life in general!) than self-control. It’s what stops snarky remarks in their tracks, turns down the heat on potential rants, keeps you from hitting send on that outraged email, and ensures you will remember the previous three skills of joy, kindness and focusing on the big picture. Self-control is a muscle that can be strengthened, and it starts with mindfulness, because the first step is noticing—noticing that you are in a stressful moment, that you are triggered, feeling angry, are tempted to lash out. Then, instead of reacting, you take a breath and choose your response, hopefully with kindness. Maybe someone is being unkind to you. Can you notice if that person is under stress and taking it out on you? Can you then step back, and choose a kind—or at least benign—response? (“Thank you for bringing that to my attention.”) Maybe you’re under stress and feeling like lashing out. Can you notice your stress, take a breath, and choose kindness to yourself and others? Maybe you just need a walk outside, a quiet moment, a few minutes of meditation, or a healthy snack to regain your equilibrium. Learning to pause and notice is the first step in developing self-control, and it’s a strength anyone can develop with practice.
Self-control is perhaps the most difficult of the simple skills great leaders must master, but it’s also necessary in order to make use of the other tools. And that’s the kind of wisdom great leaders develop just by showing up on the job every day
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