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Leaders are People, Not Job Titles

Lead with your whole self

Team leader. Manager. Director. Chief Marketing Officer. Do you introduce yourself with your job title?

Beware! If your job title is your identity, you’re leaving your best leadership qualities at the door.   Each of us is a complex, multifaceted, interesting person. Embracing your whole self, and connecting with the full selves of those around you, makes you a more complete leader.

My title, my self

For many years, I was so focused on work that I thought of my colleagues only in relation to their work. She was a ‘great leader.’ He was a ‘dead weight in a team.’ Unless something got in the way of their performance on the job, I rarely thought or even knew about their lives beyond the office. 

I can guess what they said about me: ‘I wouldn’t want to be stuck on a desert island with her. All work — so boring!’ I let a few people into my non-work life, but not many. I missed out on friendships that would have made my job easier and more satisfying.

A leader makes connections

Taking over a team in crisis taught me the value of a broader connection. My predecessor believed in fear-based leadership, and it showed. Long-term colleagues regularly fought, loudly, viciously and in public. They described one another as incompetent or useless. Their answers to the company’s culture survey on attitudes and optimism were in the bottom tenth percentile. Something had to change, before they all melted down and left.

These were highly skilled, highly educated professionals. Individually, all added tremendous value for the company. I was their new leader, but they were no longer a team; they had lost all sense of one another as human beings.  Like stubborn children staring at a plate of Brussels sprouts they crossed their arms and prepared to hate every suggestion for fixing the mess.

Job titles don’t solve problems, people do

My first job as leader was to help these people rediscover their common humanity. Initially, I asked key team members about their lives outside the office: what they had studied in school and why. Their hobbies, the last book they read. Whatever they wanted to share about themselves, I wanted to hear. We stayed away from work topics, parking them on a list for later.

Then I shared a bit of myself: how it felt to be an American living in Switzerland, my love of horses and model trains. Opening up parts of my private life made it safe for them to open up to me. I found beekeepers, musicians, a cabinetmaker. I found people who had the same interests, but had never known. Connected in new ways, they slowly became a team again.

Finally, I could start to work directly on the culture.  I asked them about what work had been like during better times. How did they interact? What did they miss? What did we want to avoid? Their answers were remarkably consistent. If only they had shared them with one another months before!   

My self, not my job

Sharing our lives and interests outside the office reminds us that we are each more than the title, the assignment, the report that is due. Sharing adds layers to our relationships and our lives. As whole people, we bring our entire range of abilities to solving problems.

Limit your leadership identity to your job title and you will be a caged bird: unable to fully use all of your myriad strengths, just when you need them the most. The world places enough constraints on us; why add more?

Break out of your cage

If you’re struggling to connect with your team, take the first step. Introduce yourself to them again, as you would to someone new. Bring up a non-work topic at the start of a meeting, or at the coffee machine if you are working face to face. Connect as people, not as cogs in the wheel.

Leadership is so much more than your job title. Make human connections and you can set your team, and yourself, free.

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