Call yourself a leader? Leadership is not a title, it’s an action!

27 July 2020
9 minute
By Dr. Mark Slaski – Organisational Psychologist, WorkplaceBuzz 

In the post-pandemic world, successful leaders will be those who can empower and truly unlock the potential of their teams – 7-things you should do differently tomorrow to emotionally engage and empower your team.

One evening in early February 2014, 34-year old Carl a furniture removals man, was watching the news on TV. The headline item reported of terrible floods developing in Cornwall – days of heavy rain and high winds coincided with spring tides. Storm surges and flood waters threatened to overwhelm scores of towns and villages clinging to the fragile Cornish coastline – people needed help!

Carl could not sit and watch from a distance, leaving his job behind he spent the next 8-days working as a volunteer in the town of Fowey. On arrival Carl realised he was not alone, dozens of volunteers had congregated, all desperate to help. Organisation and co-ordination were patchy, so given his skills Carl took it upon himself to form a team filling, carrying and stacking sandbags. Over the next few days, with very little sleep, Carl and his team saved the properties and livelihoods of hundreds of people.

In December of 2004, 10-year-old Tilly Smith was on holiday with her family in Phuket, Thailand. Walking on the beach the day after Christmas she noticed the tide rushing out and the sea “fizzing and frothing”. She remembered she had seen this before in a geography class at school - it was the warning signs of a tsunami.

At first, Tilly’s parents ignored her pleas for them to escape the beach, but Tilly was 100% sure a tsunami was imminent - everyone was in terrible danger. Not being heard she raised her voice - she started screaming “there’s going to be a tsunami - we have to get off the beach, we have to run”. Seeing the intensity and conviction in his daughter, Tilly's father took action and together with a security guard they all ran across the beach shouting for everyone to run to higher ground.

Everyone started running, there was sheer panic.


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As they reached higher ground the holidaymakers watched in horror as a huge wave raced up the beach and smashed into the hotel. Because of Tilly’s actions that day, over 100 people on the beach were saved from the tsunami that took 230,000 lives across Asia in a matter of hours. 

Apart from teaching us to always respect the power of nature, what these stories have in common is leadership – ‘the act of influencing a group of people to take action toward a common goal’. Neither Carl nor Tilly called themselves a leader or ever received any formal leadership training, yet on the day their leadership was spontaneous, total and effective.  

There are two conclusions we can draw from these events. Firstly, ‘leaders’ and ‘leadership’ may be more widely distributed around our organisations than we generally consider. Leadership can come from any quarter - given the right conditions and circumstances. Secondly, unlocking their potential and encouraging people to step-up to challenge, may require our designated leaders to focus more on creating the optimal psychological setting in which others can flourish – a culture of empowerment. 

Traditional and rational leadership models urge leaders to have power over their followers and to see them as recipients of leadership. These times of post-Covid transformation will almost certainly call for a more progressive approach, one where followers co-create and influence their future, and one where leaders set direction, fight for resources, lay down the rules, empower others and referee the action.  

The question remains - how do leaders enable others and create a culture of empowerment? Based on scientific research this article presents some ideas for creating greater empowerment and is underpinned by three key principles:  

  1. Leadership is action - not a title. Post-Covid leaders will stand-out not only by ‘what they do’, but more importantly by the ‘way they do it’ – how they behave and manage the psychological landscape. Leaders will need to exercise emotional intelligence and act with confidence, compassion and empathy. At times they will need to show tough love. 
  2. Followers are emotional - in these dark and rapidly evolving times people will look to their leaders to stoke feelings of reassurance, support and security. Having a plan is not enough without passion and purpose. People are emotional, and the most effective teams will be ones whose leaders can lift, inspire, excite, and grow their people. 
  3. Many small actions make a big difference - marginal gain. Our research across many organisations shows that leaders and managers who adopt a number of micro-behavioural changes make a significant impact on the culture, engagement and performance of their teams.  
How do you make change stick? Repeatedly practise new behaviours until they’re automatic.
- Daniel Goleman

1. Build Trust 

Without doubt the number one factor related to people’s engagement, wellbeing and performance at work is trusting those we work with, and particularly our immediate manager. The feeling of trust is the glue that bonds great teams - they know each other inside out, they’re in it together and they can count on each other.  

  • Trust is built on knowledge. Make time to really get to know your team - their passions, dreams and aspirations. 
  • Leave time in meetings for ‘getting to know you’ activities. 
  • Make the most of every interaction and conversation to build trust. Make conversations less about work and more about them - and share some of your own story. 
  • Find ways to show your team they can count on you – you have their interests at heart! 

2. Listen  

Great leaders understand people need to express themselves emotionally and at the same time have valuable ideas and opinions. Being listened to makes people feel included and part of the team. Listening is hard work and requires effort. 

  • Giving a voice means listening more than speaking, asking more than telling - practise your listening skills and facilitation skills. 
  • Make time in meetings for people to voice their ideas and opinions.  
  • Encourage challenge, appoint a devil’s advocate to add some creative abrasion. 
  • Measure and track the engagement and wellbeing of your people. 

3. Create Challenge  

It is of critical importance for people that their work brings a good level of satisfaction, confidence and joy. This is largely achieved through purposeful work that plays to their strengths and offers a regular sense of achievement.  

  • Identify people’s signature strengths and key vulnerabilities. Play to their strengths and manage their vulnerabilities. 
  • Create short-term challenges for people to experience regular wins and successes - task people to deliver a piece of work outside of their comfort zone. 
  • Delegate more responsibility by giving others the opportunity to lead and manage projects and special assignments. 
  • Use psychometrics to explore people’s strengths and vulnerabilities 

4. Empower  

Effective leaders are flexible with the freedom and authority they offer their teams. Sometimes the situation calls for more control, other times leaders recognise its best to get out of the way and let people get on with it. Generally, people are more engaged and creative when they are trusted to make decisions and have the freedom and flexibility to choose how they do their work. 

  • Develop your delegation skills and empower your team with more ownership, accountability and responsibility. 
  • Be open and encourage people to use their imagination and creativity to generate new ideas. 
  • Encourage collaborative teamwork. Where possible give tasks to pairs rather than individuals. 

5. Bust Uncertainty  

There is no greater cause of anxiety than the fear of the unknown. Leaders have an absolutely critical role during a transformation to provide clarity and perspective. 

  • Acknowledge uncertainty and tell people what you do know and what you don’t know - be clear and explain how you’re going to provide more clarity. 
  • Ask team members how you can reassure and what more information they need. What are their concerns and worries? 
  • Share the organisation’s vision and strategy and specifically how your team’s contribution makes a difference.  
  • Always follow-up conversations and meetings with a formal summary of discussions, next steps and agreed actions.  

6. Boost Confidence 

Successful leaders understand the power of recognition for boosting self-esteem, confidence and optimism. Confidence is the energy of empowerment. Praise and appreciation pay directly into people’s emotional bank account and bond them to the team and its purpose. 

  • Make a habit of using praise - let people know privately and publicly they are valued. 
  • Encourage people to share when they have received recognition from customers and colleagues. 
  • At your next meeting ask each person to recognise the contribution of a colleague. 
  • Reward staff with impromptu gifts of gratitude e.g. surprise vouchers, a home hamper.  

7. Invest in Development 

There is no reason why people development should stop in times of significant transformation. A constantly changing world means that people will need to continuously learn and develop their talent and capability. Smart leaders realise the benefits of investing in their people not least in raising self-esteem and instilling a sense of pride. 

  • Update yourself with the current learning and development policy and any available training. 
  • Set aside time with people to discuss their career ambitions and personal goals. How can you help them to succeed? 
  • Expose people to as many different experiences as you can. Create opportunities for networking and learning across the organisation. 
  • Encourage people to regularly reflect on their learning and what they could have done differently. 

The tragic dance with the Covid virus threatens to continue and the world drifts back to work with a sense of trepidation. For most, new ways of working have dawned and changed the world forever. Critical to a return to profit and growth will be the capacity for leaders to truly unlock potential and empower their teams – to build a culture where people feel trusted to pick-up the ball and run! 

Leadership is not a title, or entitlement; leadership is many small human behaviours. This article suggests leaders can transform and empower their teams through adopting a few simple actions of emotional intelligence – things you can do differently tomorrow. Whilst at first changing your behaviour can feel uncomfortable, I would urge you to try just a few of the above – you may be surprised at the result. 

Dr Mark Slaski

If you would like more information for what a good leader looks like – why not download our whitepaper “Top 6 traits to make a great leader” or contact us for more information.  

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