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Life Lessons for Leaders

Posted by Elaine Varelas  May 1, 2010 06:00 AM

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by Elaine Varelas

What makes a leader today? It may be too soon to extract all of the lessons from the wreckage of the recent economic free-fall. In fact, many businesses are still reeling from the impact, and most others are on the cusp of a slow and incremental climb-out. There is no doubt that we have a completely altered economic landscape from just a few years ago. What kind of leaders will organizations need to pull out of this slump?

Today’s leaders may not all look like those who inhabited the c-suite a few decades ago (older, white, males). There’s more diversity in executive offices—women, people of color, and young professionals are working their ways into positions of power. Some of the traditional leadership styles have changed as well. Ruling with an iron fist or only hiring leaders with years of longevity with a company have proven to be ineffective ways to lead and choose leaders. It just doesn’t work in a digital, global economy. How can HR managers guide their organization’s leadership going forward? As we move into this next decade, what skills are obsolete? And more importantly, what are the leadership characteristics that will help organizations rebuild and flourish?

In fact, the qualities that make great leaders actually stem from those life lessons that were instilled in all of us as children. While it is too trite to say “Everything I Learned About Being A Leader, I Learned in Kindergarten,” there is a kernel of truth in that sentiment. Of course, leaders aren’t made in grade school (or even business school), but the survival skills we develop in the elementary grades can give leaders an edge. Here are some basic tenets of leadership excellence that can be gleaned from those grade school lessons.

Be Ready to Learn
Even in preschool, it’s not all about recess and show-and-tell. Kids are taught the ABCs and 123s. School is a place to learn, discover, and think critically. Effective leaders must be constantly seeking answers, asking questions, and gathering information. Yes, leaders can rely on intuition and hunches for ideas, but they must back it up with quantitative research. Proceeding without data to support business direction is akin to a high-school kid blindly filling out a multiple choice test based on the chords of a favorite song.

There is a difference between what you think, what you know, and what you can prove. What your organization’s leadership believes about the organization is not necessarily accurate. Can it be validated? HR managers can help leadership step back and get a full perspective. Set up a 360º review system to test assumptions about the organization and its leadership.

Stop Talking and Listen
In school, if you don’t listen, you don’t learn. This statement also applies in the workplace. Leaders who believe communication comes from the top-down only are missing out on valuable insight. Information must flow both ways. If there are any leaders at your organization who live on a one-way street, tell them to move! Talking “down” to employees and selectively doling out information is an antiquated idea that will serve to alienate employees, and leaders will be left trying to assemble a puzzle without a key piece.

No Bullying allowed
With the recent tragedy surrounding bullying in schools, there will be an even further crack-down on aggressive behaviors in academia. The same intolerance needs to infiltrate the workplace. Bad behavior and workplace hostility should no longer be acceptable. Research shows that fear is not a good motivator. Bad behavior decreases productivity and puts employees at risk. Of course, it is easy to terminate a workplace bully who is not getting the job done. But sometimes managers and company leaders are willing to overlook bad behavior in top-performers. Are you willing to make those hard choices? Will leadership institute a “no tolerance” policy no matter the money-generating potential of the bully?

Diversity Matters
You get more out of an education when you encounter a wide variety of people. In most public schools, classes are comprised of kids from different backgrounds, religions, races, and economic status. Many work teams are also made up of people from disparate backgrounds, as well as different ages. Multigenerational teams are the new office norm. By building work groups of people of different ages and experience level, teams can benefit from multiple perspectives. Leadership and the company culture must support this diversity to get the most out of their teams by communicating the message “Respect your elders AND respect your youngsters.”

Trust is a Limited Resource
There’s an honor system in school that shouldn’t be breached. Teachers trust students not to cheat, and kids put their trust in teachers to help them learn. But when that trust is violated, it can cause serious damage. There is also an honor system within organizations, as well between the leadership team and employees. Unfortunately, trust in senior management at companies everywhere is at an all-time low. HR managers must take the lead in helping leadership maintain, or rebuild that trust. One way to do this is to help management lead in a more transparent way and share as much information as possible with employees so they can feel comfortable in their positions and stay focused on their work.

By taking a cue from those life lessons that we learned back in grade school, HR managers and company leaders can help lift their organizations from the rubble of the economic crisis and move towards a prosperous and solid future.

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.

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