Leading for Change

UPDATED: May 25, 2023
PUBLISHED: November 16, 2012

AMERICANS have suffered many losses in recent years—jobs, homes, life savings, as well as something less tangible but no less daunting: a loss of confidence in leaders and in leadership itself.

“There is little doubt that Americans have become much more skeptical of those with power, authority and influence,” says Mike Myatt, managing director and chief strategy officer of N2growth, whose clients have included AT&T, Bank of America and Dell. “As a whole, I believe the average American doesn’t hold much faith in promises made, but they are starved for real, tangible solutions to the problems they face.”

The most recent National Leadership Index compiled by the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership shows overall confidence in leadership remains significantly below average for the third year in a row among most of the major sectors of society, including business, Wall Street, government, religious, education and news media. Overall, only 38 percent of Americans think leaders are doing a good job, according to the research published in late 2010.

The impact of this crisis in confidence is significant for leaders at all levels, whether they’re at the helm of a Fortune 500 corporation or running a mom-and-pop business. But it’s only one of the many challenges they face today. In the business world, financial issues certainly top the list, as well as decreased resources and morale issues due to layoffs and an uncertain future. Myatt adds that rapidly advancing technology and a multicultural, cross-generational workforce pose new challenges for business leaders struggling to adapt.

But skepticism of leadership can be healthy, raising the bar for all leaders and, ultimately, contributing to stronger organizations and society in general. There is no question that if leaders are to remain effective, they must evolve. And therein lies the challenge—and the opportunity. “There is an opportunity for real leaders to shine—those who are inspiring, humble, bold, visionary and courageous,” says author and executive coach Valorie Burton.

Even during good times, such positive leadership traits may seem elusive. How do leaders cultivate and demonstrate these traits today, especially in the face of so many other challenges? Experts suggest they simply can’t afford not to, and they offer the following suggestions.

Transparency Is First and Foremost

“In today’s uncertain business climate, there is no more powerful leadership attribute than the ability to be genuinely honest about one’s weaknesses, mistakes and needs for help,” says best-selling author and leadership consultant Patrick Lencioni. “Nothing inspires trust in another human being like vulnerability—there is just something immensely attractive and inspiring about humility and graciousness.”

Lencioni, founder and president of The Table Group, champions the concept of “getting naked” in his latest book of the same name. That concept is all about authenticity and breaking down the walls between people to foster trust, connection and collaboration. “So many… feel the need to demonstrate that they have the right answers and that they don’t make mistakes. Not only do [people] see this as inauthentic, they often feel that they are being condescended to and manipulated. We’ve found that what [people] really want is honesty and humility.”

Honesty is especially crucial when it comes to acknowledging the problems at hand. Leaders should address major concerns openly and frankly and show that they recognize the impact the concerns are having on their team members and subordinates. This way, leaders demonstrate that they all share a common goal and that, despite the enormity of the challenges ahead, everyone is on the same team, fighting together.

Involve the Team in Finding Solutions

This openness often leads to better problem-solving, says Patti Blackstaffe, business relationship and communications strategist, and president of Strategic Sense. “Be transparent and allow your team to help you find solutions to your largest challenges,” she says. “You don’t have all the answers, and science is showing that a group of committed collaborators trumps a single genius for finding amazing solutions.”

Plus, just the act of involving team members in addressing a need simultaneously answers another desire: “They want a stake in things; they want to know they have contributed and been heard,” she says. “They want to become part of the ecosystem that is the business in which they are involved. They want to lessen the gaps from executive to front line and the real issues, and they plan to do it in real time.”

Earn Loyalty by Serving

Working to develop trust between leader and follower will yield loyalty—an undervalued commodity that leaders only earn when they realize that their purpose is to serve those whom they lead.

“When you closely examine the core characteristics of what really makes for great leadership, it’s not power, title, authority or even technical competency that distinguishes truly great leaders,” Myatt says. “Rather, it’s the ability to both earn and keep the loyalty and trust of those whom they lead that sets them apart. If you build into those you lead, if you make them better, if you add value to their lives, then you will have earned their trust and loyalty. This is the type of bond that will span positional and philosophical gaps and survive mistakes, challenges, downturns and other obstacles that will inevitably occur.”

To that end, Blackstaffe suggests that leaders “seek unique ways to develop and support the people they are privileged to lead.” In his best-seller The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell calls this trait The Law of Addition: “The bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves but how far we advance others,” he says.

Maxwell suggests showing employees they truly are valued by taking time to listen to their ideas, complaints or suggestions and letting them know they’ve been heard and understood. He also suggests making it a practice to perform small acts of service for others without seeking credit or recognition for them. These could be as simple as collecting money around the office for an employee who’s running in a charity fundraising marathon or supporting an employee who wants to pursue continuing professional education outside the office.

On the flipside, it’s also important that leaders make themselves valuable to others by teaching skills, providing opportunities, or sharing insights and perspective gained through experience. By pursuing their own personal growth—whether informally (trying to improve upon key areas on a daily basis) or formally (through professional workshops and classes)—and passing those lessons on to others, leaders add value to their own lives and to their team members.

Lead by Example

“More than anything else, employees want leaders whose beliefs and actions line up,” Maxwell says. “They want good models who lead from the front.”

He recommends “a character audit” for leaders interested in assessing how well they’re doing in this area. The audit involves making a list of core values (e.g., integrity, hard work, honesty) and thinking about actions taken over the past 30 days. “What incidents, if any, stand out as inconsistent with those values? List as many things as you can recall. These items will show you where you need to work on yourself. Work on changing not only your actions but also your attitude.”

It’s also useful to ask a trusted colleague for his or her observations and feedback. Another way leaders may assess whether they’re practicing their preach is by making a list of five things they wish their people did better, then grading their own performance for each. “If your self-scores are low, then you need to change your behavior,” Maxwell says.

Maintain Accountability

Another way to lead by example is to maintain personal accountability for one’s mistakes, no matter how high-profile the leader’s position or how damaging the error.

“One of the most disturbing trends among leadership over the past decade is the tendency to make excuses for inexcusable behavior or mistakes,” Burton says. “It is essential for effective leaders to own their mistakes and explain how they will correct those mistakes now and prevent them in the future. Few of us expect perfection of our leaders, but most of us respect a leader who can be humble enough to admit when she or he is wrong.”

The best leaders hold their employees accountable as well, setting and maintaining high standards for all to follow. “Companies who strive to clarify the kind of culture they desire and take action to hire and fi re to maintain that culture will be one step ahead of the game,” Blackstaffe says. “Today’s winning leader is not just here to weather the storm; they are here to completely change the game. You will witness these leaders engaging all people as active participants in delivering value creation, and this includes everyone at every level of the organization and customer base.”

Share Your Vision, Show the Way

In any economic climate, it’s important for business leaders to clearly articulate their vision, goals and specific plans to achieve them, but even more so during challenging times. “A lack of clarity, the presence of ambiguity, obviously fl awed business logic or constantly shifting priorities/positions are the death of many a venture,” Myatt says. “However, CEOs that implement a well thought out and clearly articulated vision create a sense of stability and a bond of trust amongst the ranks.”

Clearly, if people are concerned about their own jobs or the health of the company, being reassured that their leader knows the way out of the quagmire is essential. It’s also critical that team members know how they can contribute.

“When employees know the plan, the direction, the mission and the goals, it gives them something concrete and real to focus their actions toward. It helps them understand how they add value to the direction of the company and shows them their own worth toward building success for the organization,” Blackstaffe says. “We hear employers frequently saying they want their staff to understand they contribute to the fiduciary responsibility of the company. One cannot expect employees to take on that kind of commitment if they have no idea what path or direction they are committing to.”

A clear set of goals should not only be articulated throughout the business, but also to contractors, vendors, “even the person who delivers your photocopy paper,” she says. “Ensuring that [everyone] understands your mission allows you to not only build a solid brand but allows all stakeholders to shape how their actions add value by meeting that specifi c goal.”

Cultivate the Next Leaders

When considering the road ahead, strong leaders must see beyond themselves—beyond their own tenure, as well as their own strengths. “A leader’s lasting value is measured by succession,” Maxwell says.

In such rapidly changing times, leaders must look for successors who possess a variety of strengths and characteristics that will serve the organization as it grows, innovates and weathers future storms. While sharing their own insights and experience, leaders must recognize the value of new perspectives. Strong leaders must not seek to duplicate themselves in their successors, but to help their protégés hone their individual talents and skills.

“Ideally, you should pick people with greater potential than you who will be able to ‘stand on your shoulders’ and do more than you did,” Maxwell says. “Begin investing in them today.”

While the challenges facing leaders today may seem daunting, and Americans’ confidence still lags, it has rebounded 12 percent since 2008, according to Harvard Kennedy School officials. “Equally reassuring is the finding that Americans’ predominant positive emotion is hopefulness,” researchers write. “When the nation’s economy and politics are not working, and confidence in leaders is ebbing, the country can easily get trapped in a downward spiral of demoralization. But no such doom loop exists right now, as the National Leadership Index 2010 emphatically demonstrates. Americans’ continuing hopefulness gives leaders something to work with; although our leaders may not have much leeway, the news this year is that we still have a little more time to work things out.”