Search “Leadership” online, and you’ll find a million articles offering advice on how to be a better leader. Eleven simple steps, nine strategies, five leadership tips – we’re inundated with so-called education and training about how to lead well. The question remains, if the road to great leadership is so easy and accessible, why are there still so many ineffective, demotivating leaders who crush the potential of their employees and organizations?
Eight years ago, I met “courage in leadership” expert Bill Treasurer, at an author retreat of Berrett-Koehler, the publisher of my first book Breakdown, Breakthrough, and was immediately impressed. I watched him quietly lead, and build a collaborative and open space for discussion, feedback, and dialogue among a diverse group of authors and publishing professionals. I liked him instantly and felt this man truly walked the talk. So I was excited to learn he has a new leadership book out called Leaders Open Doors out this week.
Bill is Founder and Chief Encouragement Officer of Giant Leap Consulting, and the author of Courage Goes to Work. In his books, he shares his pioneering work in the new organizational development practice of courage-building. Bill insights have been featured in over 100 top publications, and he draws on his experience as a former member of the U.S. High Diving Team, during which time he executed over 1,500 high dives from heights that scaled to over 100 feet, requiring intense levels of courage every day to succeed as a top athlete.
I caught up with Bill to ask him about his courage-focused brand of leadership, and what he teaches leaders to help them inspire, motivate and lead individuals and organizations forward.
Kathy Caprino: Bill, we read so much about what makes a great leader today. What do you think is missing in all this advice we’re inundated with?
Bill Treasurer: Despite the volume of leadership advice, and maybe because of it, leadership is the most over analyzed, thoroughly dissected, and utterly confused topic in business. Too many leadership writers, myself included, have spent too much time complexifying the idea of leadership, and not enough time offering down-to-earth ideas that everyday leaders can use every day. We’ve become the Legion of Leadership Complexifiers (LLC). We’ve nuanced the topic so much, and inflated the standards for what it means to be a leader so high, that hardly anyone can be deemed a leader anymore.
Two years ago, after a conversation with a very wise person, I resigned my membership in the LLC. I had a conversation with my five-year-old son, Ian. He had been selected as the “leader for the day” at his pre-school. I gave him a big high five and said, “What did you get to do as class leader, little buddy?” His reply? “I got to open doors for people.”
Those seven words helped me cut through the clutter and get back to what’s most essential about leading others: creating opportunities for growth and development. I wrote Leaders Open Doors to help lighten the leadership load by getting back to the most essential aspects of leading others.
Caprino: What’s the biggest failing that unsuccessful leaders suffer from?
Treasurer: At first blush it’s easy to think that the biggest failing is oversized egos. But I think it’s what’s under those oversized egos that’s the real problem. FEAR. So many leaders carry (and convey) a great deal of fear, which contorts behavior. Fear can drive a leader to be ill-at-ease, hyper-controlling, and overbearing. At a certain saturation point, those fears get transmitted to the people being led, and everybody becomes anxious and frazzled. Over the long-term, it kills performance, morale, and ultimately the leader’s career.
Here’s a phrase I wish leaders would stop using: “What keeps me awake at night is…” Why do leaders continuously need to remind people what gives them anxiety and insomnia? Employees don’t want to know why a leader can’t sleep at night. They want to know what gets the leader up in the morning. Leaders should stop showcasing fears and start highlighting opportunity. Who would you rather be led by — someone who is squirrely in his or her own skin, or someone who is so confident in their role that they sleep soundly at night?
Caprino: Your new book talks about leaders opening doors. Why is this so important, and why is it left out of standard, non-effective advice for developing leaders?
Treasurer: Einstein said, “All that is valuable in human society depends on the opportunity accorded the individual for development.” In other words, the one of the smartest people who ever lived is saying, “Hey, you know what moves society forward? When everybody has a chance to grow and develop.”
Einstein isn’t alone. Peter Drucker, the father of management consulting, was clear, “The focus of the organization must be on opportunities rather than on problems.” Yet a lot of advice for leaders focuses on sharpening their problem-solving skills.
Leaders Open Doors gets leadership back to the essential idea that, first and foremost, leaders have to be creators of opportunity. Leaders need to be continuously focused on identifying and creating opportunities for people and organizations to grow and develop. Leadership, in this sense, isn’t about the leader…it’s about those being led. Open-door leaders intensely focus on bettering the lives, conditions, and skills of others. By focusing on the individual, the collective (i.e., the organization) is strengthened. Companies grow when people grow.
Caprino: For new and emerging leaders (and veterans), what are the top 5 ways leaders can open doors, and why are these important strategies
Treasurer: Here are my top 5 recommendations:
Use opportunity to motivate, develop, and engage people.
Even small opportunities can make a big difference. Involve employees when you’re grappling with a big or risky decision. Invite an employee to join you when you’re presenting to your boss. Let an employee lead a meeting in your absence. Open doors for your employees to engage, present, create, innovate, and even fail.
Start by meeting with each person you lead and ask them about their career aspirations. What, for example, are they hoping to get out of the experience of working for the company? What skills are they hoping to strengthen or deepen? What contributions do they hope to make beyond the ones they’re already making? In other words, have a conversation with each of them about them, not just what you’re wanting them to do for the organization. Once you know what each person you’re leading wants and need, you’ll be in a better position to identify opportunities within the organization that can help them get what they desire while also furthering the goals of the organization.
Coach people to value and embrace discomfort.
Virginia “Ginni” Rometty, the CEO of IBM, put it best: “Growth and comfort do not coexist.” The opportunities you provide people should give them sweaty palms. Nudge people into their discomfort zones, but not so far out that they choke with fear. Ask them what aspects of their jobs are getting boring. Then, set stretch goals. Have them take on tasks outside of their current skillset.
Promote courage by creating safety.
If you want people to take on challenges or do uncomfortable things, you need to create a climate where people who make mistakes–or even fail–aren’t fired. Sara Blakely, the billionaire founder of SPANX, said, “When someone makes a mistake at SPANX – especially when those mistakes key us on to a new insight – I am never disappointed. In fact, I go up to them and give them a high five.” Imagine what that attitude does to promote a positive environment where people feel free to be innovative and take risks.
Say, for example, you’ve shifted the role of one of your direct reports. Ways to create safety might include giving them lead time to learn the new role, scheduling one-on-one time coaching time with them, providing “air cover” from those who may get impatient with the direct’s learning curve, and having tolerance for early mistakes.
Broaden people’s view.
People can get narrow and habitual in their thinking. Open-door leaders help shift people’s perspective and help them think more broadly. Sometimes even small shifts can make a big difference. One CEO I work with was frustrated that he wasn’t getting enough leadership from the managers of the company’s business groups. They spent too much time being operational and tactical, and not enough time being strategic and innovative. In other words, they were managing, not leading. So the CEO changed their titles from Business Group Managers (BGMs) to Business Group Leaders (BGLs). The expectation shift was clear, and their behavior changed because of it.
Too many leaders get all wrapped up in their “role” (and ego) as leaders. But employees want to know that their leader is real and not just performing a function. People need to see the person behind the role. They want to know that you remember where you came from, that you’re in touch with your roots, and that you can relate to their lives. Show them some of your authentic non-work identity and interests. Let them know what you care about beyond the goals and objectives of the department or organization.
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Strategies like these are important because they are not complex or hard to understand. Leadership is hard, but it doesn’t have to be complex. Your life as a leader, and the lives of those you impact, will be far more rewarding, successful and productive if you bring your behavior back to the essential approaches above.
Simply lead by keeping leadership simple. Above all, be an opportunity-creator.