In his book, The Art of Possibility, renowned orchestral conductor Benjamin Zander shares a simple idea he calls “Leading from Any Chair.” He writes:
“A leader does not need a podium; she can be sitting quietly on the edge of any chair, listening passionately and with commitment, fully prepared to take up the baton.”
I believe the same is true for all of us who work in organizations. Anyone in the house can lead. We don’t need special authority or a title. We don’t need a certain technical expertise. Heck, we don’t even need permission. We merely need the desire to engage others in moving the ball.
The real leadership question is: Will other people WANT to follow you?
You see, leadership isn’t about pushing people, trying to make them do your bidding. Leadership is about pull – pulling people along with you.
But to do that, people need to be willing to follow you.
And that isn’t true only for those of us who are “bosses.” Each of us influences and impacts others throughout the work day. We interact with people continually and need things from them to do our own work.
So, if we want people to follow our lead, it behooves us to be worthy of their followership – to operate in ways that encourage them to trust us enough to be open to our leadership and influence.
Here are five ways we can all do that better – regardless of which seat we sit in.
1. Be the Example
A lot of leaders I’ve worked with through the years talk about “leading by example.” They contend that it’s crucial to behave in ways that reflect the very same behaviors we want and expect from others. Otherwise, we look like hypocrites and lose credibility. Who would want to follow someone like that?
Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, who’ve been researching personal-best leadership practices since 1983, have consistently found that effective leaders align their actions to their values. Kouzes and Posner call it “Modeling the Way.”
Gandhi also gave us a phrase to guide us. He said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” -- Gandhi
They’re all the same thing – Being the Example.
If you want people to follow your lead – whether you’re the boss or not – operate according to the same rules you apply to others. If you want people to be on time, be on time. If you want people to follow through on their commitments, follow through on yours. If you expect people to admit their mistakes, take responsibility for your misses. If you want people to learn and grow and be better, then continuously learn and better yourself.
Being the example by modeling what you want and expect from others won’t guarantee you’ll get it. But if you and I don’t walk our talk, we have no right to ask others to be what we’re not.
2. Be Likeable
In Robert Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule, he makes a case for eradicating mean and abusive people from our workplaces. For one thing, their nasty behavior creates toxicity. “Negative interactions,” Sutton points out, “have five times the effect on mood than positive interactions.”
Being likeable is about being kind, respectful, friendly. It’s about being easy to work with, easy to get along with. It involves showing gratitude and giving genuine praise. It doesn’t mean you’re a pushover or a doormat, and it doesn’t mean you can’t express your opinion or point of view. The way you do that, however, makes all the difference in whether others like you.
Simply put: Through our positive behaviors, we can act as an antidote to workplace toxicity.
"Through our positive behaviors, we can act as an antidote to workplace toxicity." -- John Rutkiewicz
That’s one reason to be likeable. Yet there’s more.
As Robert Cialdini showed more than 30 years ago, likeability is one of the fundamental principles of human influence and persuasion. “People prefer to say yes to individuals they know and like.”
Despite this very simple idea, leaders still say to me, “I don’t need to be liked. I just need to be respected.” Well, that’s half right. People do need to respect you, I agree. We all deserve to be treated with respect.
As for being liked, however – if you don’t pay attention to whether people like you, you’re missing a key source of power in your ability to influence and persuade others.
3. Manage Your Emotions
At times, I suppose, we all lose it, emotionally. The place where that happens for me is on the golf course. Just ask my golfing buddies about the anger-filled rants I sometimes spew after a bad shot.
Like the golf course, the workplace can be a difficult domain. From time to time, we all get frustrated, angry, concerned, fearful, or stressed about the things going on around us. We have workloads to contend with, people to deal with, and deadlines to meet. And sometimes, others let us down.
In the workplace, however, losing it emotionally is similar to being an unlikeable jerk. It’s toxic. As humans, we impact each other through our emotions. The primal part of our brains – the limbic system – is wired to pick up the emotions and moods of others. We then tend to feel those same emotions.
The leadership implication is this: When others around us feel our negative, toxic energy – our anger, our fear – we become unpleasant to be around. They feel uncomfortable, on edge. In that state, why would they want to follow us further into the jungle? It’s painful.
On the other hand, positive emotions are uplifting and energizing. As Jon Gordon reminds us in The Energy Bus, it’s better to focus on the energy of “feeling joy, happiness, enthusiasm, gratitude, passion, and excitement…. People are always buying you and your energy.”
Make sure you’re selling the good stuff.
4. Know Clearly What Others Expect of You
One of the most brilliant observations ever made about the human condition came in an article in Fortune by William H. Whyte in 1950. He wrote: “The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it.”
“The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it.” -- William H. Whyte
Every one of us likely has countless examples of this human phenomenon. We often think that our communication with others is crystal clear, only to find later that, somehow, we weren’t quite in sync.
As an antidote to this common frailty of human communication, I think it’s wise to develop the habit of clarifying expectations as you interact and communicate with anyone – your boss, your peers, your vendors, your customers, and your direct reports, if you have them.
Don’t leave clear communication to chance. There’s too much as stake. Unclear expectations about what others want and need from you result in frustration, ineffectiveness, and inefficiency. For everyone.
To help, here’s a question and a phrase you might inject habitually into your communication with others: What are your expectations here? I want to be clear, so I meet your needs.
"What are your expectations here? I want to be clear, so I meet your needs." -- YOU
You get the idea. Put it in your own words. Even try it at home.
Aside from your gains in clarity and perhaps a little more peace in your life, the leadership element of this practice comes from this fact: When you clearly know what’s expected of you, you have a better chance of being successful.
In other words, clear expectations allow you to be competent. And hey, guess what? Competence is a key to being trusted, such that others will want to follow you.
5. Serve Others
I know. Those two words, “serve others,” seem to contradict our usual idea of leadership. But hear me out.
In leadership and influence relationships of any kind, it can never be just about you – even when you have the authority as “the boss.” Humans don’t like to follow people they perceive as self-centered, interested only in their own needs. We prefer to follow people who also take our interests into account. People who listen to us, who help us, who make our lives and work easier in some way.
In other words, people who serve us.
In the early 1970’s, Robert Greenleaf developed a leadership school of thought based on this very idea. He called it Servant Leadership. One of its core tenants is that Servant Leadership challenges our common notion that leadership somehow requires power and authority. Instead, Greenleaf and others have argued that leadership can occur in any relationship when leadership is grounded in service.
James Hunter, a contemporary thought-leader in Servant Leadership, characterizes the idea this way: “Anytime we extend ourselves, sacrifice, and serve others, we build authority and thereby influence.”
Now, this sounds very nice, but is there proof?
Let’s ask Robert Cialdini. You remember him and his principle of likeability from earlier. He discovered through his research another principle of influence that’s related here. It’s the principle he calls reciprocity.
“Simply put,” Cialdini says, “people are obliged to give back to others the form of a behavior, gift, or service that they have received first…. People are more likely to say yes to those who they owe.”
But Cialdini’s research has also found that it’s not only important for you to serve first – the service must be personalized, such that it’s valuable and important to the recipient. No value, no reciprocity.
If you want to become a person of influence, become a person of service. Continuously learn what others need, what their pain points are, how you can help them. Then, fill the void. People will be more likely to help you and follow you if they first know you to be a person who helps them.
Servant Leadership proponent Hunter puts it pragmatically: “If you get your people what they need, they will get you everything you need.”