Don’t be a Joyless Leader

I remember a time in college when I returned home to visit my mom, and she told me about a troubling sight she had just seen. A school bus had stopped at a light beside her, and the faces of sullen and despondent teenagers filled every visible window.

Her voice was soaked in sadness as she explained, “They’re kids, on a Friday afternoon, going home for a long weekend. This is supposed to be an exciting and optimistic time in their lives. They shouldn’t look like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders.

We lived in an affluent town, and although teen angst can run deep and shouldn’t be trivialized, I doubt few on that bus had many unmet wants.

My mom recalled the joy she had felt as a young woman, enthusiastic to learn what each tomorrow held in store for her. She hinted that bringing a surplus of exuberance into adulthood is helpful because it gets harder and harder to retain or recapture that joy after prolonged exposure to the random blows life inevitably sends your way.

When you see the sad, slack, bovine expressions of listless figures through a window, or perhaps in your bathroom mirror, you’re not looking at purposeful people motivated by an exciting and worthwhile goal. You see disillusionment, worry, and fear which are horrible expressions to have painted across anyone’s face. Discouragement and demoralization do not suddenly appear. They are signs of erosion, put there by constant exposure to negative elements which rob people of their faith and ingenuity, and insidiously stifles early talent with ridicule, disdain, or worse, indifference.

Some of the teens who carried those gloomy expressions my mom saw, may have recaptured the joy and enthusiasm she spoke of, but many, dare I guess most, have not. Today, they are your doctors, bankers, teachers, professors, police officers, city planners, elected officials, cubicle dwellers and leaders influencing others, for better or worse.

People who are disillusioned, discouraged and chronically disappointed with where they are in life make lousy leaders. They can systematically erode the optimistic possibilities held by others. Sadly, with their influence they are, through ignorance more than intent, creating a new generation of lousy leaders. That cycle must stop.

I believe happiness and purposefulness come about by the active pursuit of a worthy goal, therefore if you want to be happy you should never be without a great goal.

I believe most people know what they want to contribute to society, but lack the confidence and support to pursue their dreams.

I believe great listeners create great leaders, artists, and entrepreneurs; and when you learn to listen, particularly to yourself, epiphanies become common.

I believe accountability raises both your game and your aim. You achieve more when you are held accountable for your decisions and your actions.

I believe good leadership can eradicate despondency from the faces and hearts of the disillusioned and dissipate its corrosive effect on the world at large.

Imagine if every woman, man, and child you know had at least one great goal that they were actively working toward every day? The buzz of energy produced from such productivity, collaboration, and purposefulness would do more than illuminate cities; it would illuminate minds long shrouded in a fog of doubt. It would raise hope, lift spirits, and propel those with a success mindset ever forward. To solve what others thought unsolvable. To achieve what all but a few thought unattainable. To refuse the deferment of dreams long-held, or thoughts long held silent. To try, to fail, to try again, without stigma or scorn.

It is possible.

We may not ever live in a world without conflict, but we cannot call it living if it’s in a world without goals. The best we could do then is exist, and merely existing is not good enough for me, and I doubt it is for you.

What’s your next great goal? Will you pursue it with joy?

This article was first published on Karl Bimshas Consulting.

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Do You Fail At Leadership?

Let’s take a break from tech and talent analytics and think about bosses. Good bosses make the news: consider Dan Price, the CEO in Seattle who was so moved by a study on happiness that he took an enormous salary pay cut to raise his employees pay to a live-able wage. Bad behavior makes the news: ESPN just proved that (again.) But bosses who behave badly? We don’t hear enough about them. Why? For one thing, boss-positive evidence tends to be, well, material. The bad stuff tends to be more intangible (unless there’s a chair thrown). And we’re programmed to not recognize it. Why? Four key reasons:

  1. Denial Is Part Of The Culture

If all that stands between ourselves and salary / compensation / benefits is a leader who throws a tantrum every three months or so, we may just opt to put up with it. Given the comparison between years of job security and the occasional sh*tfit, we may decide it’s not so bad.

The root of this lies in the essential nature of work itself: there are times (come on, admit it), when just working itself is denying what we’d rather be doing. Or else there wouldn’t be so many books about finding happiness in the workplace. But we know that kind of unhappiness erodes workplace engagement.

  1. The Brilliance Myth

We’ve all seen cases where myth making came into play: it’s a modern twist of concept of good leadership. We’ve come to accept that leaders are more brilliant and different than the rest of us, and therefore deserve a certain license. Even if they’re regular, toil at the desk types, they are the ones taking on the most risk and strain.

But back in the day when leaders did things like prevent the city from being invaded, that kind of attitude would get everyone killed. Come to think of it, don’t we still consider business a battlefield? We tend to tolerate eccentricity in visionary leaders, but sometimes it’s just plain bad behavior.

  1. Mistaking Emotion For Transparency

Transparency is one of the top factors driving employee engagement. But it’s a misconception that a transparent culture should reveal its stress. It shouldn’t: transparency is a matter of unifying mission, message, brand, and culture, and yes, passion — for innovation and success.

But strong emotions erode respect and trust, even in employees who consider transparency an employer requirement. While strong, but calm guidance allows for human nature, it doesn’t foster it. It fosters creativity, productivity, and inventiveness.

  1. Not Trusting HR

Tony Deblauwe (founder of the consulting firm HR4Change) observesthat employees may not be comfortable going to HR with a boss issue.The HR department is inherently an extension of management, which feeds into the perception that HR is aligned with leadership, not employees.

From fear of deaf ears to fear of reprisal, this is another misconception, and may be the easiest to clear up — and the most important. HR is about managing people in a way that enables them to be their best professional selves. That means managing their emotional well-being as well as nuts and bolts issue such as their compensation. If employees are loathe to confide in HR, that’s going to lead to even faster disengagement and attrition. Given that, keeping the keel nice and even is a matter of good business practice.

Did I say take a break from analytics? Leader’s prerogative: I just changed my mind. Why? Just as analytics have given us infinite variations on employee performance, perhaps we need to start branching into leadership indications as well: call them KLPI’s. The scope of global organizations requires Big Data, but I’d argue that there are ways to measure the boss’s behavior — good or bad or indifferent (which is bad, but I’ll get to that one soon) — and ways to predict its outcomes as well. I’ll leave that one to tech, but there’s no time like the present.

A version of this was first posted on Forbes.

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How To Be A Good Leader? Get Real

Labor Day’s coming up. To me, national holiday not only reminds me of honoring the workforce (which we’ve been doing as a nation since 1894), it also signifies the start of a new season. I may have left my school days behind, but that feeling of sharpening my pencils for some serious buckling down has never left.

What’s on the curriculum? In the university of HR, celebrating the workforce is more important than ever — and celebrating them every day. That requires good leadership, with a human face. I’ve been spending a lot of airtime on Talent Acquisition’s need to keep pace with the amazing tech innovations happening fast. Yes: we’re about to be hit with a virtual tidal wave of Big Data as Steve Lohr aptly put it. And yes: for HR and talent analytics, that means we have to entirely retool — and fast. But especially in the face of such massive changes, we need to focus on people, not numbers. Say it with me: A company’s success is driven by its workforce’s performance. In one sense, every day needs to be Labor Day.

I’m thinking of a supermarket. We all heard about my local grocery chain Market Basket, the quiet little New England supermarket chain whose loyal employees (and customers) responded with a resounding NO when their beloved CEO was ousted. The organization’s top-down restructuring lost millions during the misstep because it overlooked a key factor in its own success: the authentic, human relationship that Arthur T. Demoulas forged with his workforce. And I do mean authentic: based not on smoke and mirrors, on a pat on the back and a turning of the cheek, but on a mode of leadership with humans at the core. That means real benefits, a real profit-sharing plan, and first-name interactions across the board. As soon as the CEO came back, so did the success of the company.

Good leadership is authentic leadership.

When you align the best interests of your company with the best interests of your workforce, you generating more than employee loyalty. You generate customer loyalty as well.

Good leadership wants its workforce to win.

When you create a company culture that puts your people and their performance first, that will drive the best outcome for your business.

Good leadership wants it workforce to be happy.

When your people are happy, they feel more capable, more confident, and more creative. They’ll transmit that into their communications and interactions, advancing the business and driving innovation. Confidence, as many of us in HR see all the time, is contagious. It imbues collaborations with more positive outcomes, and ultimately inspires customer confidence.

Good leadership means real collaboration.

A recent piece by Rebecca Newton in Harvard Business Review focused on what defines truly collaborative leadership, and I agree:  “I define real collaborative leadership as: facilitating constructive interpersonal connections and activities between heterogenous groups to achieve shared goals. It is proactive and purpose-driven.”  Proactive. Purpose driven. I’d also add: continuous. Collaborative leadership is a perpetual learning process, adapting and growing with every new hire, new promotion, new goal.

Good leadership focuses on people, not numbers.

It may sound like a cliché, but in the face of a profoundly changing world of work (remember that tidal wave of Big Data about to hit?), it’s more important than ever. Regardless of data, regardless of technology, you simply can’t have an optimally performing organization without a genuine, people-centric relationship between leadership and workforce.

So enjoy your Labor Day. And if you’re here in New England, stop at Market Basket. The service rocks.

A version of this was first posted on Forbes.

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