If You Want to Lead Well, Be Among Your People

Posted on by in Business, Change, Character, Communication, Goals, Leadership, Managing Talent, Personal Development, Relationships

A recent conversation highlighted one of the more common mistakes leaders make, especially once they get past 15 or more employees–they stop hanging out with their people–which is both understandable … and disastrous.

It’s understandable because leaders lead through their leaders/direct reports. Between meetings and working with and through their direct reports, there’s often very little time left over. Plus, most leaders feel like they’re undercutting their leaders/direct reports if they “go behind the leader’s back” and talk to employees one or two levels down the org chart.

On the other hand, this is disastrous because what gives leaders power isn’t their position but the will of “the people”. And what drives the will of “the people,” or what causes them to want to give power to a leader, is their belief that the leader understands them, cares for them, feels for them, “gets them.”

One of my favorite studies on this subject is related to who wins the election for President of the United States. In every election over the past sixty years, the person who won the election has been the person with the highest “likeability quotient.” For example, JFK over Nixon. LBJ over Humphrey. Regan over Dukakis. Clinton over Bush I. Bush II over Gore and Kerry. Obama over McCain. In other words, forget politics and policies, most people, when they’re in an election booth and have to make a choice, tend to vote for whomever they “like” the most.

In other words, whenever “the people” feel like someone “gets them,” they willingly give power over to that person. But whenever they feel that someone is elitist or doesn’t get them or understand them and their issues, power leaves. Putting politics aside, this is one of the major issues confronting our current president, Barack Obama.

President Obama was voted in on a populist platform where people felt like he understood them and their issues. Unfortunately, two years later, his poll ratings are down almost 20 points, with a higher disapproval rating than an approval rating. Why? For a number of reasons, but if you listen to the comments most people make it’s that they feel he’s “out of touch,” he doesn’t “understand them,” he doesn’t “know what matters to them anymore,” he’s “elitist,” etc.

This same thing happens to owners and CEOs of small and medium-sized businesses all the time. As they grow, they spend all their time with senior executives or their top team or with investors or board members, etc. And then they wonder why their people don’t follow them like they used to. Hello?

Great leaders know they have to frequently be among “the people”. This is why Managing by Wandering Around (MBWA) was such a powerful concept. And I’ve watched it literally transform companies and organizations–small and large. There’s something very powerful that happens when the people of a business or organization feel connected to their leader.

In fact, I was just talking to one of my daughters the other day about her former principal, Suzanne Maxey, whom we all loved. She transformed a school. And one of the ways she did it was she was “among the people.” And she didn’t just show up at events, she valued the input of the students she interacted with (as well as faculty). She “got them.”

In fact, one of my daughter’s favorite practices of Suzanne was that she would often get on the intercom and say something like, “Okay, whoever is in the second row, third seat from the front, please report to the auditorium.” The students would file down to the auditorium and then she’d ask them questions and seek their input (i.e. she held randomly selected focus groups). Suzanne led well for a number of reasons, but one of them was that she was “among the people.” Unfortunately, some of the other principals who have come before her and after her, missed this lesson–to the detriment of the school.

At the end of the day, positional power can only get a leader so far (just ask Tony Howard of BP). What makes a great leader great is that they have referential power; that is, power willingly bestowed upon them–not because of position, but because of choice. And what drives that choice? It’s the belief by “the people” that their leader gets them, likes them, cares for them and understands them.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re running a tech company with $15M in revenue or a multi-national consumer products company with $15B in revenue. If you want to lead well, you need to be among your people. And not just physically, they need to feel you value them, hear them, and understand them.

So, how are you doing at this? How much time each week do you spend with people “down the org chart”? How much time do you spend doing MBWA? How much do your people like you? How much do you like them? What are their major concerns right now? How are you addressing them? Do you “get them”? Do they feel the same?

Remember, if you want to lead well, be among the people. You can’t lead well from a distance. If you’re only meeting with your top level people, you’re missing out. You need to be among the people if you really want to enter the ranks of being a great leader.

To your accelerated success!

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