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7 Leadership Principles Every Leader Needs to Understand

Jason Diamond Arnold

January 18, 2019

Leadership is one of the most important of aspects of successful business or thriving communities. Yet, the practice of leadership remains a mystery when it comes to clearly explaining what great leadership is. You know it when you see it, but what are the essential principles of great leaders in a 21st century knowledge workforce?

Lawyers need to pass a Bar Exam before legally practicing law in their state. Doctors need to pass a series of tests to obtain a license to practice medicine and offer prescriptions to patients. Yet, there is no common standard on for becoming a leader within a corporation or as a public servant. While we don’t anticipate legislation on requirements to be a leader in your community or within your organization, we do believe that your organization should consider the essential principles they expect a leader to exhibit when influencing others toward executing corporate strategies.

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Managing and developing an organization means optimizing the most important strategies through sustainable practices and should have a meaningful effect on overall performance. There are underlying beliefs and assumptions that are so important for being a leader in context that we at Inspire Software, in collaboration with Leadership Genius, believe that they are unquestioned principles that are imperative for your leaders to adhere to. These principles should be seen as guidelines, norms, and even requirement for the effective implementation of organizational strategy through leadership in it’s various contexts.

Principle 1: Integrate Leadership throughout the Organization

Leadership is not a One-Size-Fits all approach to managing and developing your culture toward a shared vision, values, and objectives. Organizations need to develop leaders at every level of an organization. Leading yourself as an individual contributor is different than managing a direct report, or leading a team. Leadership becomes more complex at an organizational level or through an alliance with your clients or another organization serving a client together. There are 5 Contexts of Leadership every organization should consider before deciding how to lead:

Each context of leadership should be maintained and developed proportionally to the context leaders are influencing others in. Organizations using a fragmented approach through various leadership development programs, will suffer tradeoffs proportional to the fragmentation of the different philosophies and how they are practiced within an organizations. On the other hand, organizations can make the mistake of promoting high performing individuals into leadership roles, or great managers into executive positions, without properly training them for the new context you’re asking them to lead in.

As a leader, the skills you use in one context don’t always translate in another context. While you may use common practices of leadership across different contexts, how you execute those practices are shaped and influenced by the needs of the context you are leading in.

Principle 2: Leadership is a Verb

Leadership is not a title, it’s a set of practices that produce behaviors you do with people, not to people. It’s an active practice that takes place over time and requires skills sets that adapt to, not only the situational needs of the moment, but the context of how you are leading.

We might think of Google, the company as an entity, but name of the company is based on an action and has become known as verb, something you do. “Hey Siri, google the location of next year’s Super Bowl?” The dictionary definition states that “google,” is a verb, “meaning the search for information on the internet, using the search engine Google.” While the dictionary definition of leadership is defined as a noun, meaning “the state of being a leader,” or “the leaders of an organization, country, etc.” Leadership needs to be practiced like verb, “Hey, Manager, can you help leadership me to achieve my objective?”

According the the Authors of Achieve Leadership Genius, an overarching leadership philosophy rooted in a long history of leadership studies that have been used for decades by organizations around the world, the definition of leadership is not a passive idea:

Leadership is the repetitive acts of inspiring, engaging, and satisfying the values and needs of the performers of an objective in areas of conflict, competition, collaboration or achievement of a meaningful objective that results in individuals and communities taking action toward a mutually shared vision and objective.

Even though it may make you feel less comfortable, solving negative issues early is important before they grow into larger disruptions in the future.

Principle 3: Leadership is Disruptive

When leaders are more than just philosophers, they take action and apply best practices and actually challenge people to lead at every level of an organization. Leaders that actually apply leadership theory often disrupt the status quo. Active leaders force to the surface problems that may be nagging an organization or community and have been ignored or dismissed because of immediate business needs of the moment. Because dealing with these difficult issues can cause discomfort or resistance, they may also adversely affect the energy and ability of individuals, teams, and business units to achieve high performance if they are not used to being challenged to address critical business problems.

Active leadership needs to be the norm, not just when a major change initiative is taking place or the organization is suffering through lean financial times. Whether it’s a new process or organizational change, every strategy an organization implements will go through phases of performance similar to that of an individual or team pursuing a goal. The trap passive leaders fall into is responding to these challenges that disrupt short term progress by not sticking to the practices that are proven to work over the long run.

The key to any performance situation, productive or disruptive, is for leaders to be able to recognize progress, even though it may sometimes give the appearance of regression, and then apply those most appropriate leadership actions for both short-term and long-term outcomes.

Principle 4: Leaders Don’t Take it Personal

Leaders should not personalize the perceptions or actions of the people they are attempting to lead. That doesn’t mean that leaders should ignore the perceptions they create with those they are influencing, but they do need to respond to them with objectivity. When individual team members question the actions of leaders, they often are experiencing their own insecurities or lack of clarity on the objective you are all trying to achieve. Most employees want to make a meaningful contribution and questions about leadership arise when they become unsure of if their contribution matters. Regardless of how the questions may be raised or stated, they are often a reflection of the individual's mindset--particularly their psychological needs or their concerns about the direction the organization or team is heading in.

When leaders manage check their personal feelings at the door of their role, a challenging skill at times, the are able to more readily listen to the questions, concerns, and perceptions of their people. These challenges provide indicators about their team or organization’s phase of performance toward a common objective. They also may be more able to recognize the underlying issues and concerns that might affect the overall performance toward the objective they are trying to achieve. Leaders who don’t take the direct or indirect feedback personally, stand a better opportunity to reconsider how they communication, clarify, reframe their message, or more importantly consider changing some key behaviors that may be creating perceptions they don’t intend to omit.

Critical conversations give effective leaders a chance to clear up misunderstandings that may have somehow become confused in the message or decisions made on progress toward the collective objective. The less defensive behavior a leader demonstrates, the more effective that leader will be across any context of leadership.

Principle 5: Leaders Are Not Perfect

You may think you need to be perfect as a leader, but the reality is; you’re not perfect, and you never will be no matter how much knowledge, skill, or experience you acquire as a leader. This is a fundamental principle of leadership, and the sooner leaders embrace this truth, the more effective they will be as a leader.

In today’s knowledge workforce and evolving global economy, the notion of the infallible, omnipotent, all-knowing, super-leader is an outdated myth. So to is the notion that today’s leaders are above reproach or excused from the same type of feedback that the people they lead get in relation to their performance. Leaders have never been infallible or invulnerable, even though many traditional leaders attempted to exude this persona. Leaders are human, and by nature have flaws. They will make mistakes, misspeak, exercise error in judgment, make less than optimal decisions, and more often than we all care to embrace, will too often fail to meet the expectations of others.

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The good news is that in today’s workplace you’re free to be human, despite the fact you’re in the role of leadership. In fact, your people will grow to trust you and be more open to your shortcomings and failures when you’re open and transparent about your unintended missteps. When these missteps are responded to openly, honestly, and with sincere desire to learn and grow from such failures, then you will be seen as responsible and a development role model. You will make it safer for others to push the edge of performance and make it safe to fail on occasion. But when you choose to respond to missteps with an ere of denial, avoidance of the collateral damage caused by unpopular decisions, or simply ignore the realities of the low engagement pulse of your people, then you will lose credibility and trust among the people that you’ve implored to help you achieve an critical outcome.

Embrace your imperfections and be relentlessly dedicated to growing and developing while you serve your less than perfect contributors to the mission, values, and objectives of the organization.

Principle 6: Leaders Walk the Talk

If you respond to your missteps openly, with honesty and a sincere desire to learn, you will still be seen as a responsible, developing role model.Leaders need to take into account the symbolic nature of their actions. Your actions as a leader communicate your values. When you act, you communicate your values, character, and true intentions, regardless of how you hope those intentions land in the minds of others.

Your actions as a leader speak much louder than your all company meetings, corporate communications, or motivational speeches at team meetings. This is why it is a fundamental principle that leaders walk the talk of vision, values, and purpose if they are to maintain the trust, respect, and credibility of those they are attempting to lead.

In order to walk the talk as a leader, your behaviors should align with and promote the company’s values and both word and deed. People hear your words, but they see and feel your behaviors. Your true intention and character become symbolic in how you treat team members and act consistently with everyone on your team. Similar actions may look different depending on a leaders personal beliefs, values, disposition, and motivations. Nonetheless, employees will see the symbolism of your actions and this will shape the long-term outcomes of your leadership over time.

Back up your words with your actions and employees will know you mean what you say. Don’t be obsessed with changing people’s perceptions about you. Be more interested in making sure that your behaviors as a leader align with your values and the common values of the team and organization. Leaders often sabotage their own good intentions by attempting to convince others that they are good leaders, rather than simply leading, and constantly growing their leadership skills and being endlessly committed to best practices of leadership.

Principle 7: Leaders are Servants

It’s impossible to outline or promote leadership principles without addressing the issue of character, ethics, and responsibility to serve the people you lead. The greatest threat to organizations, free enterprise, and free nations are not the threats from competitors or foreign dictators. The past decade has proved that political systems and corporate entities are under the most threat from within, when their leaders breakdown in character and ethics among those who hold leadership positions in the organizations that form the fabric of our workforce and society.

High performance and successful results are only one critical outcome of effective leadership. An often overlooked measure of effective leadership are the type of results that justly benefit the greater good of the people of an organization, the organization itself, the clients the organization serves, and the greater good of society as a whole. Leadership methods can be used to achieve good or they could produce destructive results. It’s up to leaders and the will of the individuals they lead to hold each other accountable to achieve mutually beneficial and just outcomes from the objectives we pursue.

Great leaders envision themself as servants of the people who comprise the organization and society they are attempting to influence toward a vision, a mission, or the idea they are pursuing. Leaders should think in terms of outcomes rather than results.

Results - imply the organization is producing a certain number of widgets at a profit

Outcomes - imply results are being achieved, but in addition the organization is also socially responsible, nurturing its people and making a contribution to the common good in a way that doesn’t destroy the organization, community, nation or world in which we live.

It is the foundational principle that your intentions as a leader must be noble and that your beliefs and action do more than produce more than a mere profit and or happy shareholders and owners. Our definition of leadership at Inspire Software, in collaboration with Leadership Genius, implicitly implies that you must be intentional about all of these principles, first and foremost as a servant of the noble idea, the people you are pursuing that idea with.

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