Do You Want to Be a Great Leader? Ditch the Cape

What does it mean to be vulnerable as a leader?

At 32 years old, my company promoted me to plant manager even though I had never run a manufacturing operation in my life.

Upon arriving at this business, I realized there was a lot to do. There were quality problems that needed to be fixed, cost challenges that needed to be addressed, and morale issues to be confronted.

I was concerned I might be in over my head. I was the youngest manager in the history of this plant, and I didn’t want to fail.

At this point in my career, I had subscribed to the notion that the leader had to have the stereotypical leadership traits – self-confidence, assertiveness, action-orientation, and the ability to inspire others, take risks, solve problems, and take charge.

I had the mistaken belief that the boss had to have all the answers.

I had the mistaken belief that the boss had to have all the answers. Click To Tweet

What made it more intimidating was that the managers and workforce at this facility were all older and more experienced than I was. They knew far more than I did about how to run the plant.

My challenge was to figure out how to lead this operation effectively while not knowing as much as my team.

Many leaders find themselves in the same position. They are surrounded by people who are older and more experienced after a promotion or a job change. It’s easy to become intimidated.

Many leaders make the mistake of trying to appear knowledgeable, to fake it, but it doesn’t work with experienced employees. They can see right through fake leaders.

Instead, I became an effective leader at this plant by taking a step back from the leadership stereotypes. I led by learning, observing, listening, and engaging with my team. I took a more humble approach. I asked questions and listened to ideas. I treated the experienced employees with respect and sought them out for advice.

What I soon discovered is there was power in vulnerability and authenticity.

There is power in vulnerability and authenticity. Click To Tweet

Contrary to popular belief, being vulnerable does not mean being weak. It means letting your guard down, being genuine, and avoiding the pretense that you know everything.

Brené Brown, the best-selling author of Dare to Lead, says that vulnerability is simply “engaging in life, being all in, dedicating yourself to something.”

A vulnerable leader does not feel the need to have all the answers. Instead, being vulnerable enables you to see the organization through the eyes of the people you lead. You seek out their ideas and input, and, as a result, employees are more involved and invested.

A vulnerable leader does not feel the need to have all the answers. Click To Tweet

When you stop pretending to be a superhero, you become more interesting, relatable, and effective as a leader.

You might not know this, but even Superman had to learn the power of vulnerability.

One of the early complaints about the “Man of Steel” as a superhero character was that he was too perfect. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound meant that he was pretty much unbeatable.

It was always an overwhelming mismatch between Superman and any of his enemies. There was never any tension and no question who would win. As a result, Superman became boring and predictable. So dull that writers had to introduce the concept of Kryptonite to give Superman’s villains a fighting chance.

Introducing Kryptonite allowed Superman to become vulnerable. As a result, his stories became more exciting and relatable to the audience. The outcome was no longer a foregone conclusion.

When we decide to be more vulnerable as leaders, we become more attractive as well. Our employees see us as someone who is open, relatable, and willing to listen to feedback. We become real and approachable.

I discussed the idea of vulnerability and authenticity with business coach Andrew Ryder on this week’s episode of the Deep Leadership podcast. Andrew has excellent insight on this topic. You can check it out here.

If you are interested in learning more about how I turned this plant around, check out my new book, All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner.

 

A strange word with an important meaning for leaders

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I’m a “plant rat.” I love manufacturing and everything about it.

It’s real.

You can touch it and see it.

You can see raw material being transformed by employees into a final product.

Maybe that’s why I have spent more than 25 years leading manufacturing businesses.

Some of what it takes to run a manufacturing business isn’t 100% applicable to other businesses, but, there is one term from the world of Lean Manufacturing that is applicable to all businesses.

It comes from the Japanese and the word is Gemba.

Gemba is Japanese for “the real place.”

What does that mean?

It’s the place where value is added.

  • In manufacturing, it’s the shop floor
  • In a school, it’s the classroom
  • At a bank, it’s the teller windows
  • At a call center, it’s the call center floor

If you can’t figure out where that is in your business, in most cases, it’s where most of your employees are.

And, it’s likely not where management is. In fact, that’s the problem.

Too many leaders are sequestered in their offices or in meetings far from where the value is added, far away from where their people are.

Too many leaders are sequestered in their offices or in meetings far from where the value is added, far away from where their people are. Click To Tweet

Most leaders make decisions based on what they assume is happening in “the real place.”

Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer and the Father of the Toyota Production System, understood this. He knew leaders needed to understand what was happening in Gemba to make the right decisions.

And, I love this story!

To get his team to understand what was happening in Gemba, he would draw a circle on the manufacturing shop floor and tell young managers to stand there as long as 8 hours with a notebook.

Then he would ask them what they learned.

In every case, these engineers discovered problems that needed to be addressed. Real problems based on real observations!

Contrast this with the many managers who rarely venture out to where the magic happens.

We had an expression in the Navy which I love, “Expect what you inspect.”

Expect what you inspect. Click To Tweet

How can you know what’s happening if you haven’t seen it yourself? In other words, you need to get out of your office to see what’s really going on. I often say that “leadership is a people business” and you can’t understand the problems your people face if you’re locked up in your office.

So, get out there!

Go to Gemba and learn what is really going on in your organization. Your employees will appreciate it and you will gain a new perspective.

Deep Leadership Podcast

By the way, If you want to know more about Gemba and how it applies to your business, listen to the latest episode of my new podcastDeep Leadership.

If you like it, please subscribe and share it with a friend.

The One Problem in Business We Can’t Seem to Solve

A Powerful Visual

On Monday night, two AFC East football rivals played under the lights. The New England Patriots had traveled to take on the New York Jets. New England took an early lead and seemed to be dominating their opponent in every phase of the game. While leading 24-0, head coach Bill Belichick called his entire defense together to “coach them up” on the sidelines.

What was remarkable was watching the players. Every eye was on Coach Belichick. They listen to every word and nodded in agreement. It was a powerful visual moment. Even though they were winning, Belichick knew they could do better and he challenged them. It was an image of an engaged leader and an engaged team.

The Challenge

I’ve been in managing people for nearly 30 years and one of the biggest challenges has always been getting people engaged in the business. How do you get them fired up, excited, and actively helping you achieve the organizational goals?

The Gallup organization famously does a survey every year to measure the amount of employee engagement around companies in North America. The thing they find consistently year-after-year is that 70% of employees are typically disengaged at work. It’s a number that doesn’t change. In all the improvements we have made in leadership and business, we haven’t been able to solve this one problem. Overall employee engagement is poor and it isn’t getting any better.

Overall employee engagement is poor and it isn’t getting any better. Click To Tweet

The question is, why are a vast majority of employees just clocking in and out without any desire to get involved with their employer?

A Monster We Created

The sad thing is that when most employees first come to work at any new job, they are excited. They want to be involved and engaged. For many, this is their dream job and they have spent years in school or in training becoming qualified for this role. They want to make a difference and be part of the team.

What ends up happening is these new employees quickly become disillusioned.

They work for bosses who are too busy to lead – bosses who ignore them, don’t listen to their ideas and don’t treat them with the respect they deserve. And most leaders don’t understand how their actions affect their people. These wide-eyed, excited, new employees get slapped in the face with the cold, hard reality of leadership in Corporate America. And after a while, many new employees just give up.

They say to themselves, “You know what, I’m just going to do my job, keep my mouth shut and go home.”

The problem with employee disengagement is that it’s a monster we created. We built this. It’s the leadership in Corporate America that took excited, engaged, happy employees and turned them into apathetic, sarcastic, and discouraged workers who are just trying to make it through the day.

The clear problem with employee engagement in business today is leadership (or the lack thereof).

Back to Basics

You might be surprised to learn there have been more than 15,000 books written on the subject of leadership. It seems our knowledge of leadership has never been stronger. It also seems like our practice of leadership remains subpar and it’s getting worse. The busier we get as leaders, the less time we have to spend with our people. In a time where we are all connected digitally, we are becoming more disconnected on a personal level.

In a time where we are all connected digitally, we are becoming more disconnected on a personal level. Click To Tweet

If we want to solve this problem, it’s time to get back to the basics of leadership. Leadership is simple – It’s about influencing a group of people to accomplish a goal. There are three main elements: people, influence, and goals. Do you know what’s not on this list? E-mails or meetings.

The average manager today is too busy to lead. Many business leaders come into work and they have full inboxes and long to-do lists. They spend the morning banging out e-mails because they have meetings to get to. They have back-to-back meetings then head out to lunch with a customer or vendor. By two in the afternoon, they still haven’t even seen any members of their team. And the process repeats itself the next day.

Most managers are forgetting about people, influence, and goals. And most employees feel their manager just doesn’t care.

We have to remember that leadership is a people business.

Make a Change Today

The first step in solving this problem is to recognize that, as leaders, we are in the people business. We have a team of people who work for us and we need to engage them. Just like Coach Belichick, if we want engaged employees, we need to be an engaged leader! That’s the bottom line.

If we want engaged employees, we need to be an engaged leader! Click To Tweet

As a leader, you can never underestimate the power of your presence. So be present!

Physically push yourself away from your desk. Even if you’re swamped with work, get into the workplace and talk to people. See what’s going on. Engage your team!

Try this out for the next two weeks and see if it makes a difference in your organization. Focus on people, influence, and goals. You’ll be surprised by the results.

If you are striving to become a better leader, get a copy of my Amazon best selling bookI have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.