For the longest time I saw leadership as a conglomeration of skills a person developed over time. I knew there was more to it than just skills, the “special sauce”. But I didn’t spend any time trying to decipher what it might be and instead bore down on building up my skills through reading, observing others and doing. While I moved along in my leadership journey building my skills and gaining experience, that mystery element of leadership, that vital component that drives people to come together and follow another towards a target, a goal, a vision, a mission, just existed. Although a “successful” leader overall (more on what defines “successful leadership” in the next post!), it wasn’t solely from the skills I developed.
I didn’t see then what I see now: leadership doesn’t come from skills, it comes from caring.
Caring – The Key to Leadership
I count myself an effective, good leader and have the record to show for it. The effectiveness of my leadership, however, didn’t come from just the skills I developed or trial and error over time. In looking back at the episodes on my leadership journey, either in my primary work in the Air Force or within the private organizations where I’ve volunteered, I began to see a trend. I saw the same trend in the leadership effectiveness of other leaders around me.
Effectiveness occurs where the leader allows themselves to be vulnerable and through this vulnerability, truly care.
This isn’t the level of caring you experience about the quality of a report you’re writing or the client’s acceptance of a design your team is producing. We care about these extrinsic components of what we or our team produces.
This is the level of caring we experience when we’re concerned about the well-being, success, and safety of others. At this level of caring, we become invested in not only the outcome of the team, but invested in others. We undertake our work or achieving a specific mission to benefit others and in so doing, benefit ourselves.
If you view the level of caring as a distribution, you want to operate in the center of the chart, between “interested in the outcome” and “invested in the outcome”. When we operate in this range, we elevate ourselves and ultimately our team to a level of performance that is effective. If labels are what you’re into, one may even label it “successful”.
Where Does Leadership and Team Effectiveness Come From?
Leadership isn’t about being in charge. This important distinction is one that many people misunderstand, equating leadership to being the boss or believing that they can’t be a leader unless they’re the ones calling the shots. Nothing could be further from the truth. The person in charge might have the corner office, but still be a horrendous leader. On the other hand, the junior team member on a project team may lack the “big picture”, but have the ability to draw the team together in accomplishing assignments.
Position never equals leadership ability. It merely means you can provide leadership at scale.
A leader’s effectiveness, and subsequently their team’s effectiveness, comes primarily from their level of caring about their team and in the work being performed, their ability to see a future that doesn’t exist yet, and the skills to convey that future to their team and do so in a way that ensures everyone achieves more.
A leader may be difficult to get along with, perhaps have sharp corners, but still be highly effective by conveying a genuine interest in seeing their team achieve more. I know I’ve worked for bosses in the past that fit this mold and have even led in this fashion before – caring doesn’t equal being nice. It means that you are as equally focused on the successes of your team as you are on the outcome your team achieves. It means that you are willing to allow those you lead to try, to succeed and if necessary, sometimes to fail.
“If you actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” John Quincy Adams
Christian J. Knutson, P.E., PMP
Engineering Management Institute