"As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others".
A few days back I came across this quote by Bill Gates and a number of episodes, both good and bad, from my own life as a team member and as a team lead crossed my mind. It led me to so many questions, what exactly is leadership? who is a leader? what makes a leader? and so on. Surprisingly, even though it is a frequently used term, leadership is hard to define. It is different for each person. While some measure leadership with the knowledge a person posses, others see it as a collective of different soft skills like empathy, humility, etc.
Who is a leader? In my opinion, a leader is not someone who merely steers the direction of others, but someone who motivates inspires, empowers, and makes a positive impact on the people around them. Each leader has a unique style in which they showcase their leadership skills which they developed based on the environment they were set in.
So, what makes a leader? Apart from getting the tasks done on time without compromising on the quality, a leader should have a plethora of qualities like good listening skills, strategic thinking, excellent communication, integrity, empathy, etc. I can go on with the list of qualities but to summarize it I would like to use the term ‘people-oriented’. In short, a ‘leader’ should be someone who is not just task-oriented but people-oriented.
What is people-oriented leadership?
Before elaborating on what makes a leader a people-oriented leader, I will share a glimpse of one of my not-very-happy personal experiences.
There was a time in my career (around 12 years back) when I was juggling parenthood, work, and household chores, all by myself as my husband worked in a different part of the state, visiting us only during the weekends. Although it was a tiring experience I somehow managed to hold the fort up.
One day at work, one of my team leads, in a very casual but concerned manner, asked how I managed to do all this so efficiently. I, who thought my lead had a genuine interest in knowing about my struggles, shared my experience with him. The conversation also included a few of my frustrations in having to handle it all on my own. I was moved by this gesture of his but little did I know that this conversation would go as feedback to the manager, to conclude that I am not fit for a promotion. The feedback suggested I already had a lot on my plate and I will not be able to handle additional responsibilities. In short, a casual, friendly conversation I had with my ‘concerned’ lead resulted in me losing an opportunity I deserved.
So what I am trying to say is, as a leader when a person exhibits care and empathy, the intention should be nothing but genuine concern. It should never be grounds for making any (un)professional decisions that might affect somebody’s career. A leader who judges his/her team’s caliber based on the situation or circumstances in their personal life might fail in making the right decisions.
There are certain instances where the leader judges a person on the basis of different other talents they possess and guide them to a different path where they will excel, which will definitely lead to a better future. Making the right judgment for the right reason is what matters.
Now that you know how a leader shouldn't be, let us talk more about people-oriented leadership. People-oriented leadership focuses on empowering the team and its members to bring their whole selves to the office/work; motivating and inspiring them to work with their full potential. They have the innate ability and talent to keep a group glued together. The team along with its leader collaborate selflessly and work in synergy towards pursuing a common and shared goal. The team feels so motivated that they inherently feel the urge to give their cent percent to work.
"A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.” These words by Karl Marx tell us exactly how a leader should be. Be ‘invisible’ to the audience but be available all the while to guide the show to success.
Characteristics of People-Oriented Leadership
To make the idea clear, let’s look at a few of the qualities a successful people-oriented leader should have. A people-oriented leader does not just have these traits but encourages the same among the team members to make sure they share the same vision as his.
A leader should Respect and Trust his team members and should help the team build the same among themselves. Exhibiting interest in others’ perspectives, ideas, and abilities and listening to them patiently and attentively will definitely build a sense of belongingness in everyone. Being transparent in decision-making processes and seeking input from the team so that they feel involved and important is crucial to building trust among the team.
Provide genuine recognition and appreciation for the effort and talent. To explain this better I would like to narrate another snippet from my personal experience.
I was just a year into my career and even though I came from a non-computer science background, I had started to learn the ropes of software development by then. Being a junior I was mostly left with some bandwidth towards the end of the Sprint. During one such occasion, I browsed through the product backlog and found a ticket mentioning a performance issue in one of the UI components. I was not sure why I dared to pick that task, but I did. :) I only had a superficial knowledge of this component, but out of curiosity, I started to analyse it slowly, definitely not with the intention of solving it :D. Finally, after toiling for a whole week, I was able to crack it. I felt proud but was not sure whether I did it the right way. I thus approached my senior to get it verified. He did not hide his surprise when he came to my desk to check the work. He mentioned a few corrections for the solution approach and I corrected them. The next day, oblivious of the happiness awaiting me, I joined the daily standup in which the whole team and the manager were present. My senior mentioned my efforts and appreciated me for the initiative and proactiveness I showed not only for picking a seemingly difficult task but also for solving it. It goes without saying that I was on cloud nine. This appreciation and recognition gave me the confidence to pick up more challenging tasks going forward.
A kind word and genuine regard for good work done do not just make people happy but equip them for their fruitful future. Again, that is what a leader should stand for, to help his team go up the ladder.
Show genuine care and empathy to colleagues and understanding what they feel is important in developing interpersonal relationships. It wouldn't hurt to babysit your colleagues, once in a while. Again, knowing what they go through or knowing about their personal life should not be the fodder to pass judgments about them, but a reason to be there for each other.
Feedback, both positive and negative, given with a little bit of compassion goes a long way. It not only helps one improve at what they do but also improves the relationship among the team. But the whole point is this feedback should be unbiased. Unbiased feedback will definitely lead to unbiased decisions. Being treated fair is very important for one to feel energized to work with utmost sincerity.
Career growth Identifying the core strengths of a colleague is key to utilizing their talents for the benefit of the work, as well as giving them an opportunity to live their passion. What is the point of having a handful of talented people but not utilizing their abilities? This not just affects the quality of productivity but also frustrates the people who are denied the opportunity to explore their field of expertise.
Everyone should be treated equally in the team and the lead should promote the practice of ‘Asking for forgiveness than permission’ among everyone including himself. This is not about giving your team the liberty of making blunders or acting arrogantly and then asking for forgiveness, but about empowering them to make decisions rather than waiting on decisions to be made by someone else. Delegating responsibility downward in the hierarchy, to those who are closer to the customer, would help in bringing a shorter turnaround and equip the team towards agility. This practice helps in building trust among the members, irrespective of their seniority, and also helps in working faster for the betterment of the organisation. This will also definitely encourage the employees to take responsibility and commit to their work.
A leader who stands up for the team and takes responsibility when the team is in a crisis will always be treated loyally by the team members. If you ask me, showing the courage to stand up for the team when a situation arises is not an easy task. It needs strong convictions and values while holding onto the organisation’s values and culture. Leads should make sure they support their team for genuine reasons. In case a person is found at fault the lead should make sure he/she realizes the mistake. It is also important that the person understands that the team has realised the mistake and would take measures to ensure that the mistake is not repeated.
On the other hand, when the team fails or is criticised, stand by them. Analyse the situation along with the team, check whether the team/person has done all that could’ve been done to avoid or remedy the situation; check whether they have taken the responsibility and are accountable for it, and then defend appropriately. Instead of trying to run away from a crisis situation, speak up, and voice one’s ideas. While defending, maintain good work relationships with the people you speak with, be diplomatic, confront politely and at the same time, be assertive; try to see things from their perspective. Try to be calm and professional even when the criticism is unjustified.
These are the few qualities of a good leader, I wanted to highlight. But these are only a few of the many more where the focus lies on the employees' well-being.
Do you recognize any of these qualities in your lead? Or in a colleague? Well, that person is a good leader. A leader need not necessarily be a person who is assigned power. It can be anyone with the ability to see the worth of the people around and pilot them towards a better tomorrow. Each organisation will have a different leadership model which works best for its success. They should train people accordingly. It’s just that the training should be focused on enhancing the strength of the person while at the same time remedying the habits that inhibit their performance and effectiveness. Leaders need to identify and align with that model to serve the company and its employees better.
In Lao Tzu’s words, "A leader is best when people barely know he exists when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves."