In the course of my career as a business journalist and in writing this leadership blog, I’ve come across tons of information in print, on video and in-person that cuts to the core of good leadership. Surprisingly little of it has to do with getting an MBA or going through executive training courses.
A lot has to do with “emotional intelligence” and common sense. Indeed, if you scrutinize business school research you find that much of it quantifies the obvious.
So I have curated five simple pointers, gleaned from, as mentioned above, research, videos, and leaders themselves, that can assist in honing your leadership skills. Warning: these sound simple, but they take some effort.
1. Watch where you sit. Seating plans are de rigeur at weddings, banquets – anywhere the host wants to set the tone for an event, because since time immemorial the pecking order is defined by who sits closest to the seat of power (or the salt). Business meetings usually don’t have seating plans; you stake out your power by where you park your body.
Geoffrey James, contributing editor of Inc. says the boss takes “Seat #1,” otherwise known as the head of the table and found at the shortest dimension of the side of the table that is farthest from the door. Allies sit closest to the boss; visitors who may have an opposing agenda sit facing the boss, and their allies sit closest to them. If you sit along the wall you are declaring yourself an observer, as you literally “don’t have a seat at the table.” This is not a good place to be if you plan to make a point during the meeting. And if you’re not the boss, for heaves sake don’t sit in his (or her) place!
2. Leaders eat last. This is actually a military adage, on which ethnographer & leadership expert Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, expounds in a “99u” talk. Basically, he reminds us that, biological terms, leaders get the first pick of food and other spoils.
But there is a price to pay: when danger is present, the group expects the leader to mitigate all threats even at the expense of his or her personal well-being. Sinek claims inspiration for the team comes when the leader steps back and lets the others precede him in the food line. Translation for the business world: give your team what they need to do their job and get out of the way.
3. Sound like a leader. So you have to give a speech. Or make a presentation, or preside over an important meeting. How much time do you spend on preparing the content? And then how much rehearsal time do you put in? You know, reading the speech out loud, maybe even recording it, or watching yourself in a mirror while speaking?
In her TED talk, coach Laura Sicola reminds us of research showing that audiences respond more to the way you say something (i.e., delivery, tone of voice, body language) than the actual content or words you use. The lesson here is yes, prepare that content, but don’t try to wing the delivery!
4. You are always leading by example. The “example” is not just when you have to appear in public or before your team, or in a crisis. It is every single working day. It’s what time you show up, what you’re wearing, the mood you appear to be in, whether or not you smile.
You’re always “on,” always in public – rather like Louis XIV who lived his entire day I the public eye of his court, with ceremonies attending his morning ablutions through mealtimes and finally his bedtime preparations. Even when you think no one is watching…they are.
5. Say “yes” when you mean “yes”; “no” when you mean “no,” and get mad on time. This adage was told to me a by one of my first bosses, who, now that I think back on it, may have been going through analysis at the time. By keeping things current you avoid letting situations drag on, unresolved; you learn to accept your feelings or instincts or experience and translate them into decisions; your team knows where they stand (which should either boost their confidence or galvanize them to do better, depending on where it is that they stand), and you will find your work-life balance improves because work issues won’t linger as much.
Warning: it is no easy thing, following these three mandates. You have to watch yourself like a hawk. But it’s worth the effort, and adherence to this advice can spill over in a positive way into the rest of your life.
Finally, never underestimate the value of getting enough sleep. You may never be able to change the (entire) world, but a good night’s sleep will change your perspective enough so that you can at least make a difference.
By Shellie Karabell
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