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Five Things Every Leader Must Do
:: September 29, 2010

Five Things Every Leader Must Do

William D. Stinnett, Ph.D.

Every business is unique. Every leader is different. Every organizational culture is the only one of its kind. All true. But there are also some universals:

  • Organizations are systems of relationships. They work or don’t work to the degree that the relationships work (or don’t work). This doesn’t mean that everyone has to like everyone else. That is not an achievable goal. It does mean that the leader must be committed to developing adult working relationships among all employees.
  • You are a leader only if someone follows you. You can’t “appoint” someone to be a “leader.” There are many long lists of what makes a good leader. But you lead only when another person makes a choice to follow you. Their perception of you is very important whether that should be the case or not. It is.
  • Organizations where people collaborate are more productive than those who don’t. More work gets done when people work together. Even in the most hierarchical organizations, teamwork is essential.
  • People have an enormous capacity to resist change when they feel threatened. When people feel the balance of power is tipped too far against them, they fight back by withholding information, using their discretionary effort to undermine their boss, subtly sabotage the organization’s goals, etc.

Despite the mythology that, “People are just that way,” or “People never change,” there are several actions that leaders must take to make their organization effective. Often, people behave in ways that are highly predictable given the circumstances in which they are working. Leaders can change the circumstances and often greatly change the behaviors of team members. To do that, the leader must learn these skills.

  • Tell the truth. Good news or bad news. Just say it. Most team members are adults and appreciate knowing where they stand. Nothing promotes fear and anxiety more than uncertainty. Don’t be stingy with information.
  • Listen. Hear people out. Show them that you understand their point of view. Don’t second-guess, interrogate, jump to conclusions, etc. You don’t have to agree with everything that they say but it is important to understand. Listening is not something you are born with. It is a skill that must be learned and most leaders are not very good at it.
  • Hold people accountable. When a team member’s performance is good, say so. When there is a problem, tell them. Avoid assigning blame, name-calling, judgments and the like but be straight with people about how their behavior impacts the objectives of the team. Even if it is initially uncomfortable, people appreciate knowing where they stand and having an opportunity to correct errors or improve their performance.
  • Resolve conflicts. Don’t let disputes linger. Ineffective leaders avoid difficult problems and conflicts. Commit to an environment in which conflict is seen as normal and resolvable. Most conflicts can be resolved in a win/win if the leader knows how and addresses it soon enough.
  • Build teams. You’ve heard it before! Organizations are more effective when people work together than when everyone is out for him/herself. Yet some managers persist in setting people against one another with the misguided idea that they will be more creative or motivated if they are competing with one another. There is little mystery to team building. There is a set of steps that any leader can take that will lead to effective employee teams who are committed to helping the organization meet its goals.

Every organization has its unique requirements: mastery of the technology, proper marketing of the product, competent financial stewardship, and so forth. But, none of those things alone will assure the organization’s success. Every leader has the responsibility to build an organizational culture that will sustain it through good and bad times. He or she must learn and practice the five essential skills.


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