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Small acts, big leadership

Inspiring others with bite-sized steps

Leaders are often encouraged to think on a grand scale, but the great ones pay attention to the details.

By Julian Barling

Business leaders are often encouraged to think on a grand scale: strategic plans, long-term growth, the view from 10,000 feet and the “next big thing.”

But leadership is much more about moments, about very small acts.
 This may seem antithetical, at least at first. But look around and ask yourself what it is that truly great leaders do? How do they exert their effect?

People who met Nelson Mandela repeatedly referenced what I call the “Mandela Minute” — it was how genuinely excited he seemed to be to meet them.

It is not simply a matter of great leaders automatically inspiring great work. Very few people — none, I would argue — wake up in the morning and think: “I have a wonderful leader, I’m going to perform at a superior level today.”

Rather, belief in leaders and inspiration from them is the result of a complex psychological process. Research shows leaders help followers to appreciate their own skills. Great leaders inspire followers to believe that if they try hard enough and give sufficient effort, there is nothing they cannot accomplish. Wonderful leaders also help their followers to see their contribution as important, and to value their relationships with their leaders.

Their subordinates initiate tasks on their own. More importantly, they persist when difficulties arise which, as we all know, they surely will.

Of course, the converse is also true. Destructive leaders — those who humiliate, micro-manage, steal credit and throw things (yes, I’ve really heard of that) — foster the belief that no matter how hard you try, you will fail, that your work is trivial and your relationship with your leader is far from positive. And what happens? Effort stops."

But back to great leadership.

There are many theories of leadership, the details of which I will not bore you with here, but all of them require leaders to be:

  • ethical
  • inspirational/charismatic
  • developmental, or forward looking
  • relational

These four aspects or behaviours enable great leadership to create great “followers”, i.e. followers who are proactive, energized and want to do a great job.
 Which brings us to the million-dollar question: Can leaders demonstrate these four traits? The answer is yes—each one of them can be broken down into everyday behaviours.

  • Ethical: As basketball coach extraordinaire John Wooden said, start and finish on time. Why? Because this demonstrates your respect for others. Ethical leaders don’t think they’re the most important person around, they show that they value others. They recognize that the people they work with have lives and things to do. Whether it’s another meeting, a yoga class or a child’s dance recital, everyone has places to go and people to see. And when you finish on time, don’t just do it, tell them why, that you value their time and respect it.
  • Inspirational: Be engaged when you meet people. People who met Nelson Mandela repeatedly referenced what I call the “Mandela Minute” — A very brief interaction in which Mandela seemed genuinely excited to meet them. Share a meaningful conversation, no matter how short. Don’t look around the room while talking to someone. And don’t answer your phone! Show genuine interest in who they are and what they do.
  • Developmental: It’s often said, and I believe, that leaders who really care about an organization ensure its next generation of leadership. Wonderful leadership is forward-looking and nothing shows that quite as much as helping to produce more leaders, not more followers. This shows you are confident in yourself and in others, that you care about the team more than you do about yourself, your ego and your position.
  • Relational: Show appreciation. One study showed a simple expression of gratitude from a supervisor — in person, but it could work via email, too — increased the efforts of call-centre employees by 50% in a week. Demonstrate to people that you care, that they belong and that their work matters and they will give more of themselves to you.

Must you do all of these all of the time? The answer to that is an emphatic no. I quote Mandela: “I’m not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” The crucial point to remember is that employees do not expect their leaders to do things they cannot do. But they will remember — and reward — the smallest things leaders did not have to do, but chose to anyway.

So leadership is not about the big things. It’s about the small investments you make in people, in relationships and the incredible returns you can get from those people by putting them in positions and environments in which they want to — and believe they can — excel.

Julian Barling is the Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen’s School of Business and author of The Science of Leadership (Oxford University Press, 2014). 

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