When it comes to leading others, perceptions rule. The way that your staff sees you – cooperative or uncooperative, respectful or disrespectful – is their reality. If you want to be an effective leader, stop debating the truth of their perceptions and learn how to address them. Their perceptions of you matter more than how you see yourself and with a new perspective on leadership, these perceptions can be managed.
After being on the job for about 4 months, a VP was asked to the president’s office for an orientation meeting. When she got there, the President "ambushed" her about a client issue. He used aggressive language, yelled and screamed at her. She was expecting a happy occasion, and she ended up feeling threatened and disrespected.
After cooling off, she approached the President to tell him her perceptions. She hoped that this would help them to define the "rules of engagement" for their future working relationship. He told her that he did not think he was ever threatening, although he mentioned that others had told him the same thing. He also pointed out that this was not his intention, but that’s the way he is and she needs to deal with it. If he can deal with aggressive people, she should be able to.
So essentially, the president said her perceptions are wrong, as are those of others who have made the same comments. He has also said that even if he does come across as aggressive, others should learn how to deal with it…it’s not his responsibility at all. This leadership approach is riddled with problems, not the least of which being that he had just destroyed any chance of open, respectful communication with this new senior employee.
The essence of effective leadership is not necessarily charisma, initiative, or even power. As its most basic level, an effective leader has others that want to follow them. In this case, the VP decided she did not want to follow this president and left two weeks later. Interestingly, the president saw the reason for her departure as being about her competence, not his own.
So, how can a leader create a situation where others want to follow them? To being with, toss out The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and replace it with “treat others the way they want to be treated”. It is common sense that we can get more effort, loyalty, and performance from people who we treat well. But few recognize that the definition of being treated well belongs to those who follow, your staff. If a leader wants to be seen by staff as treating them well, then that leader must use the staff member’s definition, not theirs. Adjusting to this model of effective leadership is a big challenge for many leaders.
It begins by recognizing that your followers are not the same as you. They have their own definitions of aggressive, respectful, etc. You need to find out what these definitions are and try to guide your actions accordingly. If your employee tells you that she finds you disrespectful, find out what exact action they found to be disrespectful and try not to do that. It might be that you interrupted them, or looked at your watch while they were speaking. Once you know this, the adjustments can be easy. The alternative is to debate weather or not you truly are disrespectful (a fruitless exercise), or to insist that they ignore what they see as disrespect and carry on, which most cannot and will not do.
Failing to use your followers as a guide for how to lead can result in key staff walking out or disengaging. You could end up like one CEO did, insisting that his aggressive approach is the only way to be, despite complaints, turnover and profit loss. He finally saw the light when he was asked, “So this approach that you swear by, how’s it working so far?” It wasn’t. This opened the door for him to look at leadership differently. Maybe it will for you.