First to inspire. Then to lead. Finally, to communicate and collaborate.
My first instinct when joining a new organisation is to read what people need and then want. Teams are made of individuals, each with their own set of priorities. To lead a person, first understand that person. Extend that understanding to everyone through observation, conversation and compassion. Then assess the ‘personality’ of your organisation on aggregate, by reading group behaviour and interactions. This can be done by:
- Listen to conversations in the kitchen or lunch areas, where people are freer with their opinions and comments.
- Hosting a ‘coffee and cake’ question and answer session, either with new starters who have not yet been assimilated into expected culture or with a diverse group from various departments, seniority and length or service.
- Presenting (fairly casually) initial thoughts for projects, strategic direction or desired cultural shifts with small groups from each department.
The key observations will be around what truly motivates the individuals in your team, what parts of your organisational aims do they really believe in, and why are they even working for you? These may be different for each person, but are critical to bringing together your team in a common cause. The energy level will sink if the critical mass of motive is not aligned with your organisation’s values and aims. And a team lacking in energy is a team unlikely to deliver exceptional results.
So as a leader, you are really looking at how to energise, now how to motivate. If you only look at motivation, you’ll be exhausted by the wide variety of individual needs. If you energise, you can rely on others within your organisation to look at the specifics while you just inspire. Got to be easier! Only very few people have the charisma and sensitivity to the mood of their people, and know how to energise and unite those people. Nelson Mandela had it. Martin Luther King had it. Winston Churchill had it. They knew how to inspire a nation to change by tapping into their inner spirit and fortifying their beliefs in what was right. They are remembered mostly for one iconic speech, one phrase that defined their intentions: “Noone is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin”, “I have a dream”, and “We shall fight them on the beaches”. Greta Thunberg has a similar impact, fighting to prevent climate change. Malala Yousafzai risked her life to educate girls. Prince William and Kate are advocating for change in mental health stigma. Ian McKellen founded Stonewall to eradictate discrimination for LGBTQ people. As I write this, I found their mission tagline “Acceptance without exception”. Perfect.
All these causes and consequently their leaders can incite anger, resistance or indeed support. Interestingly the anger of some,and the resistance of others, can actually strengthen the momentum towards their target for change. Wherever someone is provoked to anger, someone else is inspired, someone else driven to devote their own time and energy to instil the change. Once there are enough supporters, enough impassioned people, enough implementers, then the change is underway. It only takes one person with an ideal prepared to look stupid, be embarassed and invest their time. One person.
All these leaders worked, and work, to create like minded souls, attracted together by a common cause and engendering heartfelt support. Sometimes this support comes from shared experience of trauma, judgement or fear (especially for the next generation). In WW2, soldiers enlisted because they believed in freedom of speech, freedom of choice and defeating dictatorship. Mandela and Martin Luther King fought for racial equality, with entirely different approaches but the same goal. Mandela fought, after years of pacifist protest, and after enduring years of incarceration, turned again to peaceful negotiation to rid South Africa of Apartheid. Martin Luther King’s biggest achievement was prompting a single, black woman to refuse to leave a white person’s seat on a bus. Rosa Parks did not necessarily believe she would or could change the world, but she did, through one courageous act. An act probably taken because she was tired; physically tired therefore unprepared to move, and likely mentally tired of being pushed into a lesser station in her life compared to the whites.
Of course, as well as supporting a cause groups may oppose it. The skill of a leader is in encouraging the group to take a positive stance that supports the mission. Individual growth takes place in the right environment for that person, but the leader cultivates a broader set of environmental factors that accommodate the needs of the aggregate group. They might achieve this through charisma, with the effect that the group gets behind the individual whatever their views or through conviction. It should not be assumed that this support is for a cause that is moral, right or just; Hitler achieved massive support for a ‘righteous’ cause, that was not in fact righteous. He used charisma, conviction and coercion to attempt to destroy a race. Fortunately, Churchill manifested equivalent support through his own conviction and creativity. One example of this was featured on a WW2 documentary about the work of Bletchley Park: Code-breaking’s Forgotten Genius. Here they represent how the Enigma Code was broken by applying the genius of individuals that would not have been tolerated by the Nazi regime. These eccentric academics managed to break the code and help win the war!
The shifting attitudes in today’s world are often initiated by one person speaking out, amplified by Social Media to become a ‘thought trend’. When a video, a story or a joke goes viral, it’s because it resonates in the online community. The more people align with the views, hold the same sense of humour or are shocked by an event, the quicker that post reaches the globe. A leader in an organisation can now see the opinion of their team on Glassdoor. An opinion likely to be more truthful than that obtained through the annual staff survey, because it’s anonymous and organisation neutral. A potential candidate will often see this opinion prior to interview, which colours their opinion of their future employer and leader well prior to actually meeting the Senior Management team. It could also prevent someone from applying or accepting an offer. Some companies have started to log false accounts, to skew the data but these accounts are often obviously fake and dangerous to include. Correct the culture, not the reviews.
To see cultural trends, it’s worth looking both locally and globally to understand regional and office-based differences. One cultural change solution may not work everywhere, since racial, national and religious habits may affect the way communication and influence is received. Taking regional differences aside, one thing leaders can influence are the ways their teams integrate, through office layout, technological solutions used for communication and the interaction points between leaders and teams. If you’re looking for innovation and change, allow for procrastination and thought processes that are not obviously productive. If you have a young team and want to develop new ideas, but need the experience in implementation, don’t just look at learning and development. Look at whether your recruitment process and culture lowers the chances of a more experienced worker joining your company. To achieve thought diversity, teams need to have a blend of diverse experience, age, backgrounds and opinions.
Finally, when trying to introduce cultural change in a workplace remember that looks or disapproval or shock in response to a question, idea or approach to a task is equivalent to an aggressive response outside of work. A leader can quickly suppress something new through their facial expression or a gesture; subtle clues to the contributor that they are not being received well. A leader in this situation needs to acknowledge the effect of their own views, as they are the most influential in that individuals career progression, reputation and ultimately their personal prospects.
Developing a genuine inspiration based culture is difficult. It requires thoughtful understanding of the current culture, and the ability to adapt and adjust if new things have a different effect than expected. Culture is organic and cannot be controlled too closely or the objectives of freedom of thought, information and creativity are lost. A bit like love, I guess. Good luck!
This is Chapter 9 of my book, Leadership Now. Please contact me with any feedback. The chapter links are listed as I go along on my website: https://www.inventingchange.net/leadership-now-my-book.html
Love Ruth x