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Leadership Magic

“Good leaders make people feel that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When that happens people feel centered and that gives their work meaning.” — Warren Bennis

The key phrase in this sample of Bennis’ wisdom is, “Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference.” This simple idea exposes the essence of leadership and the source of the magical outcomes achieved by highly effective leaders. Their success doesn’t depend on charisma or on special traits and characteristics reserved for the favored few. It doesn’t depend on motivating followers or on extraordinary interpersonal skills. If you happen to have charisma, special traits or characteristics, a terrific knack for motivating others, or the gift of being charming, they sure can’t hurt anything. Keep and cultivate all of them. Even so, if you help others feel that they make a difference, you are a leader of the first order, with or without an abundance of those exceptional, personal assets.

Perhaps coining a new maxim may facilitate exploring the principle in more detail: “Leadership is helping others seek what you seek.”

Consider the two elements of the new maxim. First, “Leadership is helping.” Key here is first seeing that leadership is neither leading nor having followers. Rather, you are a helper who is helping other people. Max De Pree described it like this, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” As a servant, your role is to help. The point is that leadership is a helping profession in the same sense that teaching, social work, and the ministry are helping professions. Stop to consider what it means to be a helping professional.

As a professional, you base your practice on accepted theory and knowledge, verified techniques and strategies, and on “best practice.” You don’t make it up as you go along, base your actions on personal feelings or preferences, or just do whatever strikes your fancy today.

As a professional, your behavior and actions are governed by a keen sense of responsibility. You are clear about the values that underpin your leadership and the standard you use as you help others seek what you seek. You do the right things right, the first time, on time, every time, no exceptions, no excuses; and you help others adhere to this standard.

As a professional, you take the initiative to assure that what needs done gets done. If there is something important to do and it isn’t getting done, it’s your job until it’s done. You assure that the necessary resources and services are deployed to complete the job. Further, you help others adopt the same orientation to personal and professional initiative.

As a professional, you direct all of your talents, energy, and resources toward a single outcome: “Doing the right things.” As you help others seek what you seek, you assure that they have the training, support, and resources they need as they similarly direct their efforts toward the same outcome.

As a professional, you continuously evaluate your performance, your progress toward the goal. Continuous Performance Improvement is based on a simple idea. You are committed to getting better and better at getting better and better. What’s more, that commitment extends to helping those who seek what you seek to get better and better at doing the right things with you.

The second element of the maxim is “Others seek what you seek.” There are two points that need your careful attention with this element. First, you must be clear about what you seek, for it’s this vision that you are helping others seek. As Theodore Hesburgh put it, “You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” You communicate your vision of the right things, with a clarity and passion that compels others to participate in your journey.

Second, understand that those whom you are helping are tuned into WIIFM. “What’s in it for me?” is asked and has to be satisfactorily answered by everyone. Whether you will be extended the continuing opportunity to help depends on how well the answer to the WIIFM question fits with the needs and interests of those you hope to lead. The answer must be that they do and will make a difference. Only then will they feel centered and assured that they and their work matter.

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