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How to be a leader

David Dye is the president of Trailblaze Inc. where he works with leaders who want to get results without losing their soul, or mind, in the process. We recently checked in with David to get his take on why leaders lose their way and how they can get back on track. Here’s what he had to say:

What’s your leadership philosophy?

I have two:

  1. First, when it comes to leading people: Don’t motivate, cultivate. A leader’s job isn’t to motivate people. In fact, they can’t – motivation always comes from inside a person. Our job as leaders is to cultivate an environment that releases people’s strengths, talents and energy toward the mission.
  2. Second, when it comes to my leadership purpose: Leave it better than you found it.

This maxim comes from low-impact camping practices. As a child I learned to leave a campground cleaner than I found it. As a leader, I want my time on earth to result in the world being a better place than it was when I arrived. In my daily work, this means helping business leaders get the tools they need to blend the bottom line with the human spirit.

What leaders inspire you? Why?

Historically, George Washington is inspiring for one very specific reason: after two terms as president, and despite people wanting him to remain in office, he chose to step down and enshrine the two term limitation. This was an unprecedented and tremendous act of leadership: putting the people and the future of the country above his own power and prestige. More personally, in my early adolescent years, Gary, a Scout leader, taught me how to see the strength and ability in everyone, to live with continual gratitude, and to have fun and smile through the journey.

Why is it important that leaders of any type have a clear set of values for themselves and their organizations?

More important than having a clear set of values is living consistently by your values. If you have to tell people “these are my values” and they can’t see it lived in front of them every day, there’s a problem. When your behavior aligns with the values you communicate it gives everyone in the organization clear decision criteria. Values will answer the question: “What is the right thing to do in this circumstance?” when there are more than one potentially “right” answers.

What are the biggest culprits for business leaders to lose their way – either by compromising their values or becoming disillusioned?

Here’s the tough truth: people have been working together for many thousands of years. There’s plenty of research, case studies and volume of literature about how to lead well. So why doesn’t it happen? I think there are two frequent reasons business leaders lose their way: ignorance and fear. By ignorance, I mean that leaders simply don’t learn how to lead well. The skills are available, but it takes a degree of humility to learn and master these abilities. I encounter many leaders who never take the time, or don’t think they need, to learn how to lead.

Then, even when you do learn how to lead effectively, fear can drive you to less effective behaviors. The short-term focus and high-pressure environment most business leaders encounter every day creates stress and fear that drives freeze, flight or fight behaviors. These things get minimal results, but sometimes that’s enough to keep going. It takes a great deal of courage for a leader to stand firm when confronting their own fear and refuse to succumb to using people or people pleasing while staying focused on producing great results and building excellent results.

How can leaders head off problems that create a long-term negative cultural shifts?

To head off problems, start with yourself. Stay healthy. Maintain your physical, social and emotional health so that you have good perspective when things become difficult. Help your employees do the same. Most of the long-term negative cultural shifts I’ve seen arise when leaders succumb to stress and fear.

What signs should leaders look for that their teams are losing their way?

Everyone on the team should be able to articulate what success looks like and how what they do directly contributes to that success. Check in ever few weeks. If this isn’t the case, it’s time to refocus. Also, look at shared spaces … for example, the break room microwave. Good teams take responsibility for these shared spaces and don’t leave everything to be someone else’s responsibility.

What types of values and/or practices do you think feed successful organizations?

Values and practices I see in successful, sustainable organizations include:

    • We can disagree without being disagreeable.
    • No one person has all the skills and talents. Success takes teamwork.
    • Always try to build relationships AND solve problems at the same time.

How can leaders embody these values?

Effective leaders embody these values when they combine confidence with humility. They boldly share a vision, challenge people to be their best selves and achieve audacious results. At the same time, they recognize the dignity and strength in everyone around them, they invite challenges to their thinking and they take responsibility and apologize when they hurt people or don’t live up to their commitment.

What can leaders do to share these values with their people?

To share these values with their people – live them. Go on the journey first, then invite people to join you by sharing stories of these values in action, celebrating their expression, and consistently reinforcing them. But please, live it first. I see so many leaders who stand in front of their people and make declarations about their commitment to values, culture and people, when their daily behavior undermines everything they just said. Don’t be a hypocrite. In fact, if you feel like you have to shout it from the front of the room – it’s likely you’re not living it in the hallway.

Can you share a favorite story or anecdote about a leader who was able to reverse course when their organization had taken a negative turn?

My co-author, Karin Hurt and I have both experienced transformational moments where our people called us out for not living out our own values. In Karin’s case, it had been a tough couple of weeks. A mix of challenges had impacted her team’s normally high performance. They needed strong results immediately. She didn’t realize how much her stress showed on the outside until a trusted manager on her team called her and said bluntly, “You’re changing.”

The words stung with fierce truth. He was right. On the inside, she was worried about their mission, their cause, and their careers. But on the outside she was acting more like the boss she’d refused to become. Her passion to protect her team had taken on an ironic intensity. Her supportive style morphed into frantic control. She invited herself to line-level conference calls and required more rehearsals before executive presentations. Instead of trusting her competent team, she scrutinized every page of every PowerPoint deck.

Her efforts to protect her team from stress had backfired. The words still echoed from the first conversation when her phone rang again. Another one of her managers was calling. At that moment, Karin realized that the two managers had talked before and coordinated the conversation. The second manager said, “Your style works. Stay the course. We believe in you, in us, and the mission. Every one of us has your back. Just tell us what you need.” Karin listened to her managers, shared the high level issues with them, and made them a part of the team, rather than trying to control everything herself. Ultimately, they were able to achieve the results they needed to accomplish – and everyone grew as they gained more understanding and responsibility.

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