Lately a ton of people have engaged me in conversations about human interaction and leadership. Questions like "How to build startup teams?" "How to lead one?" "How to recognize different situations that might arise and how to react to those?" etc..
This inspired me to write down a couple of "quick and dirty" concepts that I have found extremely useful. Unfortunately the blog post format makes this oversiplified and oversummarized. There's an entire science behind these concepts and summarizing them to a brief blogpost risks killing the deep ideas behind them. I decided to risk a bit of intellectual butchery and write a post anyways.
Almost all of this draws from Transformational Leadership, and Deep Leadership as the two main schools of thought. I have been a coach with DeepLead since 2009 and explored this wonderfully rich world of human interaction science as a kind of serious hobby. Throughout the text here in this blogpost I intentionally use a "military-like" analogy with terms like "troops" etc. Don't get too upset about that ;) The text might as well say "your startup team" every time it says "troops". I hope I can convey my point in an efficient manner despite of the chosen style.
Feel free to explore the DeepLead site for more indepth stuff on this; including interviews and insights from leaders who practice and develop this methodology:
What is excellent human interaction like?
Firstly, different focus areas to focus on in your own behavior when you try to really build a working human interaction relationship with someone (or with a group of people):
1. The basis for everything is encountering the people in your group as individuals and equal human beings on a meaningful personal level. There needs to be mutual respect, listening and individual consideration involved. You can do this by things like: Show that you appreciate the other people, stand up and take responsibility of your troops, listen to them, spend enough time with them, consider what they say and take it into account. Mutual respect is something that you show actively.
2. Trust can really only follow when you have step 1 covered. Trust & confidence is something you can actively build by; being open, sticking true to your word, doing what you preach, openly acting according to the values & objectives of the group, showing through your actions that you trust others, stressing the meaning and importance of trust, giving credit where it's due openly, being fair and just, being honest. And yes; admitting to being wrong when you are in fact wrong. Trust is built one action & choice at a time.
3. Inspirational motivation is one of the greatest ways to get peak performance out from your troops/team. This is not just cheering and great speeches, but also clear roles, goals, objectives and sticking to them. You can inspire people by actions such as: making clear the short term and long term goals and objectives. Making clear the decisions and different roles in the organization. Clarifying your joint mission and purpose. By agreeing on a set of rules together with your troops that you then expect to be followed in every account (people opt-in to the rules set by themselves). By portraying a positive outlook of the future and what you expect from your troops. Being enthusiastic and energetic and interested of your own tasks and work. By actively clearing out any fogginess in roles and responsibilities if they exists. Spend time to consider new ways of encouraging and motivating your troops. Do something (an event, for example. Or a surprise round of champagne) to raise team-spirit. Encourage people to participate in building joint culture. Use humor. Celebrate good results together. Say thank you for a job well done. You should aim for creating a team that at all times clearly knows what their mission is, what their most important objectives are, they work with clear roles and responsibilities and are extremely motivated to reach those goals while having fun at the same time.
4. If you have steps 1-3 covered you can concentrate on the 4th cornerstone of good leadership: growing the people who are your troops and offering intellectual stimulation to them. This in essence means learning together. Growing together. You can do this by things like; giving constructive feedback, being able to receive feedback and learn from it yourself, coaching people to act more independently and allowing them to take responsibility to the fullest extent they can handle. Get people to think about, deliberate and discuss things. Aim to improve all issues within your troops and invite the troops to help you do it together. Don't reject new ideas but consider them instead. Allow people to disagree with you - even publicly if it comes to that. Make your own learning and growth open; set an example in learning. Be very daring in delegating responsibility. Give people ample freedom and space to operate. Be tolerant of mistakes (use them as educational experiences) but don't be tolerant of blatant incompetence, braking the rules and acting against the group's objectives.
These 4 cornerstones of good interaction don't have to be strictly procedural, but they do follow a pattern as follows; it's hard to learn together if you are not inspired, it's hard to be inspired if you don't have a basic level of trust and respect, you can't really mutually build trust unless you respect the person, and lastly you have nothing to build on at all if you don't respect the other person or don't consider him to be worth your while at all.
That's why I call them "steps" because they really do build up in that order. However: all of them can be actively worked on simultaneously. And all of them can be reinforced to an even better level simultaneously.
These are the 4 cornerstones of good leadership and research during the past decades has indicated that they are pretty much universal and culture-independent.(REF: researchers such as Bass, Burns, Avolio, Nissinen, Kinnunen, notably on the concepts of "transformational leadership") So you can use this with a multinational troops/teams and still hit the target well. Turns out we are not that culturally different when it comes to appreciating these great qualities of excellent human interaction.
There are two things that can totally destroy these 4 cornerstones and the results you would otherwise have. Here's the two and a checklist on how to know if you are acting wrong (doing it wrong):
You can destroy interaction and results by being a negatively controlling prick. Micromanager extraordinaire. How to tell if you are dangerously close of being one? - ask yourself:
• Do I use my time to do the most important things?
• Do I constantly intervene in irrelevant little things?
• Do I respect the leadership of my subordinates or do I lead over them?
• Do I give people enough space to be independent and operate independently?
• Do I show that I trust people by sharing responsibility?
• Do I only try to look for mistakes in what others do?
• Do I see mistakes as learning opportunities?
• Can I handle mistake situations using my best judgement considering the dynamic of the situation?
• Do I focus on the important, do I see the main goal?
• Do I always give positive feedback as well?
Basically if you are a control-freak asshole who breathes down on people's necks all the time, assigns blame and always corrects their mistakes you will totally fail as a leader.
Image: that's a good micromanager: keeps the others on a leash and negatively controls everything.
Results can also be destroyed by being negatively passive. The best way to describe person like this is someone who is totally absent. All the time, every time.
• When necessary can I make decisions quickly and take action on any matter?
• Do people see me at least now and then?
• Do I lead dynamically, attempting to anticipate situations or do I wait for problems and mistakes to appear?
• Do I attempt to take care of everything quickly or do I give things time?
• Am I interested in my current role, am I visibly enthused by my work?
• Can I take responsibility for my own and my subordinates actions?
Basically if you are entirely absent, totally neglecting your troops, and entirely passive then you have to make decisions you will also fail as a leader.
Image: it is very hard to interact with others by being passive and entirely absent. Get your head out of the sand and be active!
Mind these 4 cornerstones and the 2 things that destroy the results they produce. Use constant effort to build up them all - and you will already be a more effective leader than so many people out there.
There's also a situational side to this. Often a trooper comes up to you looking for your leadership and you need to quickly decide what's the correct approach. Here's a basic 4-field architype approach you can use:
A. The trooper has high motivation but low competence and knowledge. This would be your typical fucking-new-guy, fresh off the bootcamp, eager to get into the fight but has no idea how to go about it yet. A new employee on the first day.
Correct leadership style here is a directive style with little or no support. Give the trooper direction; "this is what I need to you to do", you can add things like: here are 2 examples of a job well done and here's one bad example of a job that I don't want to see as your results. I expect things X, X2 and X3 from you. etc. Give precise direction and let the trooper execute the mission. Focus on the clarity of the mission, essential goals and tangible examples of good end results.
B. The trooper has low motivation but has a high level of competence and knowledge. This would be your special forces veteran who just isn't motivated to do another gig. He knows a ton about the fight and is competent in it, just doesn't want to push himself and doesn't feel motivated. Can be your veteran manager who has recently been low on motivation and drive.
Correct leadership style here is support + motivation with little or no direction at all. After all the veteran knows what to do, he's an expert, he just needs to get motivated. For this see the cornerstone 3 above. You can also try short term motivation like; rewards, a challenge, an intriguing learning experience for the veteran, appealing to the sense of duty, offering to accompany him on a learning journey together, etc.
C. The trooper is highly motivated and highly competent. This is your best-case scenario as the leader, you would want all of your troopers to be here. Competent, self-reliant employees.
The correct leadership style here is almost total delegation. Since they are motivated and know what to do, just say "get on with the mission, report to me when you are back". Nothing else is required in many cases. They will get it done (or strive trying). Afterwards you can debrief them on the mission and you can seek learning experiences from it together (see cornerstone 4 above). This is especially important if there were any anomalies during the demanding task.
D. The trooper lacks both; motivation and competence. This is the most time consuming and heavy situation for you to be in as a leader. The trooper might be a demoralized newbie, or just a guy who feels like he is in a wrong place in a wrong time; doesn't want to do anything, and doesn't know what he should do our how.
The correct leadership response here is coaching. You have to be both; directive (giving direction) and supportive. Think of a sports coach coaching an athlete to the next games in a situation where the athlete shows promise, but doesn't know how he should train and needs motivating to get there in the first place. Being a coach is long term and time consuming. You basically will have to come up with a plan for this type of trooper; you have to give him direction on what to do first (baby steps), and encourage + motivate the trooper to accomplish even that first task successfully. Once the first task is complete you can use the success momentum from that for the next task which you also have to give him through your guided direction. Repeat this long enough, coach him long enough and you just might produce a type-C trooper.
Here's a decent picture that explains the idea in a graphical 4-field. This is from "El Mundo es Penqueño" -blog (go figure..)
Note that in the picture the architypes have different designations: D1=A, D2=D, D3=B, D4=C
Just as a on final thing to add to the list; a common mistake that I sometimes see leaders make: A leader cannot be strict and demanding regarding a set of goals and objectives that the troops didn't commit to (or don't even know about; meaning that the goals and objectives are not clear). If a leader tries to be strict and demanding on unclear goals towards troops that never committed to those objectives in the first place - he is in fact just being an asshole. Many also might see this kind of behavior as negatively controlling leadership - because they don't understand the goals and experience the strictness as a form of negative control, "I didn't agree to that!" etc.
However; this entirely changes when you involve your troops into committing to goals and objectives. When they "buy-in" to them. When they actively choose to accept a mission. When they even get to have a bit of say in setting the mission objectives, the way it's executed, chosen style, chosen tools etc. Then this changes entirely and you as a leader can be (and are expected to be) strict and demanding regarding those goals, objectives, rules, whatever. And when you are strict and demanding, many people will just experience that as being inspiring and motivating - after all you are a leader that holds the troops to their commitments and demands that they see through what they opted into. Naturally there is a limit to this (don't push it to the extreme) however as a general guideline this is the case.
Image: a drill sergeant holding the troops to their commitments -based on the rules they voluntarily opted into. The same sergeant would risk a proper beating if none of the people in the room had opted into following the agreed rules.
Learn to notice and tell the difference when you are being demanding on goals/rules that people committed to, and between goals/rules that are vague (or only in your own head). Be transparent, communicate, involve the people in setting the rules and goals, offer them a change to influence the contents of such agreed principles and offer them a change to opt-in to the commitment they are making. Occasionally ask them to explain the goal as they understand it - this is a handy way to check if more clarification is needed. There's a reason why the famous dialogue in Mission Impossible always starts with "your mission, should you choose to accept it,.. "
That's my response on how to motivate the troops. 4 cornerstones of good leadership, 2 things that destroy it, and the 4 basic leadership styles on situations that arise on the field. And one highlighted mistake I sometimes see leaders make. This is a simplified toolset - hopefully it could offer you some ideas and you could gain something from it. What do you think?