People-oriented leadership

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Blog post | People-oriented leadership

Short snippet: For ages, people have debated if leaders are born or made. In my humble opinion, the answer is both. While there are a few people who are born with innate leadership qualities, there are others who can be trained to become leaders. 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.

"As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others".

A few days ago, I stumbled upon the above quote by Bill Gates, and it sparked a cascade of reflections on my experiences both as a team member and as a team leader. It raised poignant questions: What exactly defines leadership? Who embodies a true leader? What qualities distinguish exceptional leadership? Surprisingly, despite its frequent usage, leadership remains an elusive concept, its definition varying from person to person. While some gauge leadership by the depth of knowledge an individual possesses, others view it as a mosaic of soft skills such as empathy and humility.

So, who is a leader? In my perspective, a leader transcends mere direction-setting; they are individuals who ignite inspiration, empower others, and catalyze positive change within their sphere of influence. Each leader manifests a unique style honed through their environment and experiences.

What, then, constitutes leadership? Beyond the imperative of timely task completion without compromising quality, leadership demands a rich tapestry of qualities: attentive listening, strategic acumen, effective communication, integrity, and empathy, to name a few. While the list of desirable traits may seem endless, the crux can be encapsulated in a single term: 'people-oriented.' In essence, a true leader is not just task-driven but deeply attuned to the needs and aspirations of their team.

But what does it mean to be people-oriented in leadership? 

Karl Marx's adage, "A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd," encapsulates the essence of effective leadership. Be 'invisible' to the audience, but be available all the while to guide the show to success. Let us examine a few key attributes that define this paradigm:

A leader must cultivate mutual respect and trust within the team, fostering an atmosphere of collaboration and camaraderie. 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 they feel involved and important is crucial to building trust among the team. 

One of the most powerful tools a people-oriented leader has is providing genuine recognition and appreciation for effort and talent. A sincere "well done" can motivate immensely, fueling confidence and driving people to take on even more significant challenges.

I vividly remember an experience early in my career that exemplified this. Despite not having a computer science background, I was determined to learn the ropes of software development. As a junior, I often had bandwidth at the end of sprints. During one of those periods, I noticed a ticket describing a performance issue with a UI component. With only surface-level knowledge, I decided to dig into it out of curiosity, not really expecting to solve it.

After toiling for a week, I managed to crack the code and fix the issue. Proud but unsure I had done it correctly, I showed my work to a senior developer. He didn't hide his surprise at what I had accomplished, offering some tweaks to improve my solution. The next day at our team standup, he shared my efforts with the whole group, praising my initiative in tackling such a complex issue head-on and solving it so tenaciously.

At that moment, I was absolutely beaming with gratification. That public recognition and appreciation meant the world. It gave me newfound confidence to keep pushing myself and voluntarily take on bigger, thornier challenges. A kind word from a leader had unlocked something powerful in me.

True praise isn't just empty flattery - it's an honest acknowledgment of human effort and ability. When genuine, it lifts people and empowers them to soar even higher. For a people-oriented leader, enabling that virtuous cycle of appreciation and growth is among the most impactful things they can do. Simple, authentic recognition today harvests incredible results tomorrow.

Showing genuine care and empathy to colleagues and understanding their feelings is vital in developing interpersonal relationships. I am not calling out the leaders out there to babysit your colleagues but it wouldn’t hurt to do so once in a while. 

Allow me to recount a personal anecdote that sheds light on this concept. Years ago, amidst juggling parenthood, professional responsibilities, and household duties solo while my husband worked elsewhere, I encountered a not-very-happy moment at work. A team lead, seemingly empathetic, inquired about my remarkable efficiency in managing multiple fronts. Naively, I confided in him about my challenges and frustrations. Little did I anticipate that this candid exchange would be misconstrued as a lack of capacity for a promotion. In short, a casual, friendly conversation with my 'concerned' lead resulted in me losing an opportunity I deserved. This incident underscored the peril of conflating genuine care with professional judgment, highlighting the importance of discernment in leadership.

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.

So, as a leader, when you exhibit care and empathy, the intention should be genuine concern. A good leader should understand a person's strengths so that they can understand where they will be able to grow and contribute more, which will eventually lead to a better future. Making the proper judgment for the right reason is what matters.

A people-oriented leader fosters an environment where team members feel empowered to bring their authentic selves to work, unleashing their full potential. Such leaders possess a remarkable knack for nurturing cohesion within the team, fostering a collective pursuit of shared objectives. The team and its leader collaborate selflessly and work in synergy toward pursuing a common and shared goal. The team feels so motivated that they inherently feel the urge to give their cent percent to work.

Fair and Constructive Feedback, delivered with compassion, enables individual and collective growth, reinforcing trust and transparency. Unbiased feedback will definitely lead to unbiased decisions. Being treated fairly is very important for one to feel energized to work with utmost sincerity. 

Be part of your colleague's career growth. Recognizing and leveraging their strengths not only enhances productivity but also nurtures a sense of fulfillment and purpose. There is no point in having a handful of talented people but not utilizing their abilities. Not appreciating one's work affects the quality of productivity and frustrates the people who are denied the opportunity to explore their fields of expertise.

Everyone should be treated equally in the team, and the leader should promote the practice of asking for forgiveness rather than permission from everyone. This is not about giving your team the license to make blunders or act recklessly and then encouraging them to ask for forgiveness but about empowering them to make decisions.

It's about instilling a culture of accountability where people at all levels feel encouraged to take the initiative and ownership over challenges rather than inertly awaiting top-down directives.

By delegating responsibility downward in the hierarchy to those closest to the issues, turnaround times tighten, and the team becomes more agile and responsive. This practice cultivates mutual trust among colleagues, irrespective of seniority or tenure. When people aren't merely taking orders but are entrusted as decision-makers, they feel far more committed to the organizational mission, and wonderful things happen for speed, innovation, and morale.

Standing by the team in times of crisis and advocating for their interests demonstrates an unwavering commitment to collective success; believe me, it is not an easy task. It needs strong convictions and values while holding onto the organization's values and culture. 

Analyze 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 responsibility and are accountable for it, and then defend appropriately. Leaders should make sure they support their team for genuine reasons. Instead of escaping a crisis, speak up and voice one's ideas. While defending, maintain reasonable 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. The leader should make sure the team/person realizes the mistake and takes measures to ensure that it is not repeated. 

In conclusion, these qualities represent but a glimpse into the multifaceted tapestry of effective leadership, where the emphasis lies squarely on the well-being of employees. Whether embodied by a formal leader or exhibited by a colleague, authentic leadership transcends titles. A leader does not necessarily need to 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. Organizations must recognize and cultivate these traits to foster a culture of excellence and resilience, guided by leaders who lead not by authority alone but by example and empathy.

Lao Tzu says, "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.