People learn through observing others – how they act, how they react, how they make others feel. They do it so they can work out how to be successful, or to survive. They do it so they can emulate them, or avoid their mistakes. When we are leaders, it means they are observing us and making judgments about whether to be like us, or not.
So, what can we do to be the kind of leader that people want to emulate?
Jean Gamester from Semaphora has some advice on how to be an inspiring role model:
Firstly, we need to focus on what people are taking away from how we act and react. Do we behave consistently in line with what we say is important? For example, do we say ‘customer is king’ and yet always choose the cheapest option when faced with a decision – regardless of the customer?
What happens when we are under pressure? Here is a good test – if we look around in times of trouble and our teams have disappeared, perhaps we should take a look at ourselves. Are they hiding from us and what they expect our reaction to be?
What are we like when we are winning? Do our people feel like they are winning too? I observed a leader recently who had had a big success. I knew she would have had a big team helping her become a success, but the only information I could see her sharing was about what she herself had achieved. Her team are now learning about where the credit for success goes, and where loyalty and hard work will (or won’t) take you.
The fabulous American poet and author, Maya Angelou said that “people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is particularly true when we are leaders. I remember leading a team once when things weren’t going well. I was too focused on the problems and not on the people – so the people were nervous and defensive. Fortunately, someone put up a mirror up to me and from that point on, I made sure we included time for the positives and celebrated the successes, no matter what the challenges were. It was remarkable how much lighter the mood was and how much more energised the team were to deal with the challenges.
People have always used stories and fairy tales as a way to guide to how we should be. As leaders, we become characters in the stories that our people tell, and those stories are being written and rewritten as we act, react and engage with others. Our people will talk about those leaders they want to emulate, and they’ll share the horror stories of bad leaders they want to avoid.
As role models, our behaviour and how we make others feel is what will determine the kind of character they make us into their stories. Will we be the evil stepmother coming in and making everything worse? Will we be the evil rogue, making decisions out of self-interest and cheating others out of what they feel they deserve? Perhaps we will be the wise prince, sharing wisdom benevolently, or the fairy godmother, providing support and encouragement when it matters the most.
If we pay attention to the stories that are being crafted around us, we can be teaching people we haven’t even met, long after we have moved on.