Originally published in Inc.
By Scott Miller
If you’re in leadership, you’re bound to encounter a few well-worn sayings on your path to growth and development. The problem is no matter how catchy they are, some of these sayings are just plain wrong, and they might lead you down the wrong path.
Here are four leadership maxims I’ve heard over and over during my 30 years in the industry. The first three sayings you should be quick to question, but the fourth is one any new leader needs to take to heart.
“Everyone is a leader.”
This simply doesn’t jibe with my experience. I can buy into the concept that each of us can more or less lead ourselves, manage projects, and oversee initiatives. But not everyone can (or should) be a leader of other people.
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The truth is, leading people is less about setting vision and strategy, and more about holding others accountable for outcomes through continual, high-courage conversations that focus effort and passion on top business priorities and achieving results. That’s the reality–it requires a set of skills that none of us are born with, but few of us are motivated to learn or have the capacity to master.
“People are an organization’s most valuable asset.”
At first blush, this adage seems reasonable, since just about everything else in your organization can be stolen or copied (and likely is) by a competitor. But people, unlike other assets, require trust. Without trust, it is impossible for us to complement each other’s strengths or weaknesses.
Thus, it is the relationships between people and not just people themselves that are your company’s most valuable asset. How people treat each other, show loyalty in times of conflict, build trust, forgive each other (and, even more important, pre-forgive) will define your culture.
The quality of the relationships between co-workers will dictate how they lift each other up, respect, admire, and leverage the genius in their colleagues. Or if lacking, how they will come to diminish, backbite, resent, or suppress the contributions of others.
“Leaders create engagement.”
There’s no bigger focus in organizations right now than engagement. Nearly every company is measuring it, chief human resource officers are fixated on it, and CEOs and boards of directors are closely monitoring it. But countless studies show extreme levels of disengagement among workers, and a distinct connection between engagement, employee tenure, and overall profitability.
Engagement and culture go hand in hand, and leaders are the lynchpins of culture. But it’s a myth that leaders create engagement. Rather, leaders create the conditions where members of their teams choose their own levels of engagement, high or low.
It’s a subtle but profound difference. Unfortunately, few leaders understand this nuance. And fewer still can identify how their actions are contributing positively or negatively to others’ choosing to engage, enact discretionary effort, or leave the organization altogether.
“People don’t quit their jobs–they quit their leaders and culture.”
This one I completely agree with. But while easily said, acting on the implications of this axiom requires some effort. Harvard Business Review published research that showed the average age a manager receives their first promotion is 30, while the average age they receive their first formal leadership training is 42. That’s a 12-year gap during which well-intended leaders are generally just making things up as they go and often wreaking havoc along the way.
Our society would never allow a surgeon to pick up a scalpel or a teacher to head a classroom without substantial training. But with leaders, we promote them and send them on their way, often to disastrous results.
The reason for stopping and questioning this adage isn’t its veracity, but what it takes to overcome it. And that means investing the time and resources to ensure your leaders know exactly what behaviors you need to see in them, and the ones you don’t.
Organizations that heavily invest in their leadership pipeline see the reward in every aspect of their business, especially in employee turnover.
The next time you’re promoted into a leadership position–or, just as important, you promote someone else–be sure to share an unvarnished look at what the role will require in terms of their time, behaviors, and responsibilities.
Illustrate the current competencies that earned you or them the role, and which of those won’t benefit anyone moving forward. And be sure to clearly outline the new behaviors needed to learn to ensure effective leadership. Lastly, keep a continual, open line of communication, to gauge wins and stumbles and to course-correct quickly.
Scott Miller is Executive Vice President of Though Leadership at FranklinCovey.