What Your Employees Need From You

If you read a bunch of leadership books or articles about "great" leaders (as determined by "them"), you'll probably get to a point where you have found highly persuasive arguments that exact opposite styles of leadership are unquestionably the best way to lead.  That's because a lot of these perspectives focus on the personalities of the leaders, rather than their actions, and try to determine what it was about their personalities that made them so successful.  

Here's the thing, though: personality isn't what makes a leader great.  It might be what makes a bad leader terrible, but being a good leader isn't about having the "right" personality.  Rather, it's about being clear on what your job really is.  

When you are a leader, your number one responsibility is to help the people you're leading to be successful in achieving the team's mission.  Sometimes that will require tough love, sometimes it will require your rolling up your sleeves and getting into the trenches with them, sometimes it will require redefining the mission or the team itself.  There are a few things that they will definitely need from you regardless of the organizational context.  The more you can provide these things, the more successful they (and you) will be. 

What your employees need from you most is to make it possible for them to do their best work.  This means:

  • Make sure that when you interrupt them, whether it's with a phone call or a meeting, that it's important and a good use of their time.  This means starting and ending meetings on time and getting rid of any recurring meetings that can be replaced by e-mail.
  • Protect them from the people above you.  This means taking blame when things go wrong and shielding them from some of the inevitable politics going on around them.  Sometimes you'll need to be honest with them about the context they're operating within, but if it doesn't directly impact their work, try to keep them out of it as much as you possibly can.
  • Provide clear direction.  Make sure they know what matters most, to senior leadership, to customers, and to the company's success.  There will always be things that have to be done just to be done, but they need to know where to invest their best efforts.  There can only be one true "#1 priority," so make sure you and they know what that is.
  • Clear the path for them.  Remove obstacles, cut through red tape, and take care of the details so that they can focus on the work.  Identify the changes that will have an exponential effect on their ability to get things done, and then make those changes.

You don't have to be Steve Jobs or Jack Welch, and in fact they had some pretty serious flaws as leaders.  All you need to do is enable your employees to do their best work.  It's not easy, but this is what your own best work looks like.

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