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« Time to pull over and enjoy the view | Main | Dare to be ordinary »

Leading from alongside

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Do nice guys always finish last? 

Some do. I know a few who have, and plenty who have come first. I also know not-nice people who’ve done well and many who’ve failed.

That’s the trouble with cliches. They rest on a few examples but rarely on solid evidence. 

There’s also the issue of definition. What’s ‘nice’? Is it polite and supportive, or just people-pleasing? What about ‘humility’? Does it mean humble and meek, or being comfortable with who you are?   

In leadership conversations there’s no clear ideal. Leadership is ephemeral: a style that works in one episode may not work in another. Appropriate action might be decisive, instructive, collaborative, encouraging, skilful or nurturing — just to name a few options from a random list of leadership qualities.

Is there a way to work through this?

One practice cuts through most obstacles to true leadership. It’s called service. 

It’s not a new idea. Robert Greenleaf popularised ‘servant leadership’ almost 50 years ago. He drew on earlier works of mystic German author, Herman Hesse, who in turn was influenced by Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher who died in 531BC. 

Greenleaf’s premise has been swamped by modern management theory but his core element remains true and simple. Faced with any situation, an effective leader asks: ‘How can I serve?’

Why does that work?

The first thing it does is take you off you. It eases the leadership pressure of expecting yourself to know all the answers. You can start to examine the situation dispassionately.

Next, it means you are open to options. You may have a good idea, but you are not so convinced of your own brilliance that you shut yourself off to alternatives. The burden of proof is eliminated if you don’t have to prove you are right.

That means you can hear others, which is not only good for you but also for them. People like to be listened to. Studies show it to make them more engaged, more loyal and more creative.

Where does it work?

Just about anywhere. It’s good with customers and clients. They respond to people who listen to their problems and help them find a solution. Same with suppliers and service providers.

Crucially, your own people want the same. 

One of the best leaders I worked with was very consistent. Whether is was a major strategic challenge or coping with a troublesome employee, his opening line was invariably: “I’m not sure how to sort this out. Got any ideas?” 

Like most good leaders, he had ideas of his own. But if you had a better one, he was happy to go with it. If it didn’t work out, he would use the inclusive ‘we’ and shoulder some ownership, saying. “we tried that. How else can we go at it?”  

Whatever the episode, I can’t remember us not finding a solution. 

Was he a nice guy? People seemed to think so. 
Did we win? Not always, but often.

Reader Comments (2)

What a beautiful article - so eloquently constructed - and for me it was almost spiritual in the way it resonated. "Is that being nice" ? A phrase I will keep alongside me.
Many Thanks Alan

October 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAlbert

Greenleaf's stuff was great. Now leadership is all about long lists of principles and a lot of theory. This gets back to basics.

October 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterManny S

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