As you develop your career and take on increasing responsibility, it’s a good idea to visit the concepts of leadership and, perhaps as importantly, “followship.” In fact, it’s a good idea to reassess how you lead no matter where you are in your career. There is no one type of appropriate leadership style. Good leadership can range from micromanagement (often disparaged but necessary and helpful for less mature subordinates) to complete delegation. However, through the years the exceptional leaders we have seen in our practice are very similar in terms of their followship — people want to work for them.
In the past, we have done surveys both formal and informal about what makes a good leader and the results are much the same year to year. We start by asking people to describe their ideal boss. As you might guess, we get the usual responses that sound like the Boy Scout oath: Basically, every good trait you can imagine. Unfortunately, this person only lives on the pages of books. He or she does not exist in real life.
Next, we ask people to describe a specific person from their experience, someone they would think of as the best leader they ever had. These “real” people are seldom even close to the description of that fictional ideal leader. Instead, we hear stories like Ed, who tells bad corny jokes, is impatient, gives his staff 10 “major priorities to focus on immediately,” adds 10 more an hour later and then two days later forgets what those priorities were. There is Dan, who frequently uses profanity, sometimes forgets to shave and often dresses like a homeless person. And Steve is short-tempered, too blunt, impatient and sometimes forgets people are in the room.
Now, these all sound like real people — they are; we know them well — but why on earth are they viewed as “great leaders?” The people we asked reported very similar reasons they loved working for Ed, Steve and Dan. When Ed had presentations of final product, he took his team with him, introduced them by name and asked for a round of applause because “these are the people who did the actual work.” When Dan’s administrator brought puppies to work because her dog sitter cancelled last minute, he went to her desk not to reprimand her but to offer to house them in his office so he could play with them and take them out for breaks during the day. Steve sought promotion opportunities for his team and paid an hourly employee of only two months his full salary while he underwent major surgery because it was the right thing to do.
Time and again when we ask people what makes good leaders, it comes down to the same things: they keep me informed, they care about me as an individual and give me credit. Despite some reports to the contrary, human beings are largely the same in their desires: We all want to work for someone who demonstrates they care about us as people. These are the people that people want to follow.
Hopefully you aren’t always short-tempered or routinely profane. You will also definitely never be the ideal leader because, again, that person is not found in nature. But if you treat people — from employees on the shop floor working the graveyard shift to the top EVPs — as individuals you support and publicly appreciate, you will no doubt have a lot of followers.