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Leaders tell people what to do – don’t they?

June 30, 2016

As a leader, it’s your job to decide what kind of behaviour you would like in your organisation. But, how do you find your own style as a leader and set the tone for everybody who works with you?

Here, Kate Mercer, author of ‘A Buzz in the Building – how to build and lead a brilliant organisation’, looks at different styles of business leaders and explores the concept of partnership at work as a guiding principle…

So your business has grown – congratulations! Now you have a team of people and you are the leader of a proper organisation. You’ve worked with these people for a while and you all really like each other. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, being one of the gang works fine until you have to discipline somebody or you need to enforce a new and challenging policy. But what alternatives are there? How do you find your own effective leadership style?

When it finally dawns on you that being a nice person with good social skills is not really sufficient, you may find yourself making the mistake Callum did:

Building and leading a brilliant business

Attila the Hun leadership

Callum was one of the three founder directors of a small and rapidly growing company manufacturing medical equipment.

His commitment to helping people fuelled his passion for his company’s products, and he had always been very successful at creating lasting relationships with his clients.

So it was startling when the company enlarged its workforce, and out of the blue Callum flipped completely, becoming a remote, autocratic leader.

He spent hours working behind closed doors and largely ignored the team, only emerging to deliver orders and reprimands.

In six months his very mature and experienced staff were demotivated and angry, and results were plummeting.

In coaching, we explored why this gentle and likable man had turned into Attila the Hun. We discovered that this was his picture of what a manager ‘should’ be, based on his early experience in sales. It was a true ‘lightbulb moment’.

Although he understood what had happened, Callum still struggled to find a more effective leadership approach.

A different place to come from…

An old story tells of a man who wanted to decide whether to go to Heaven or Hell when he died. So he journeyed to the gates of Hell and asked for a tour.

When he entered he was confronted by an amazing scene: a table, groaning with delicious food and drink, looking incredibly enticing. “Well”, he thought, “this doesn’t look bad. I could handle a few millennia here”.

But the people surrounding the table were thin and gaunt, and he realised that though they had a spoon, the spoon was so long, and fastened to their hand in such a way, as to make it impossible for them to eat. So they were doomed for all time to be tortured by the sight and smell of a delicious banquet they were unable to enjoy.

So the man set off on his journey again. Arriving at the Pearly Gates, he requested a tour of Heaven – and was greeted by exactly the same sight: the groaning table, the delicious scents and sights – and the people with exactly the same long spoons and, this time, blissful, contented faces.

What was the difference? After a short period of thought, Callum got it: the people in Heaven were feeding each other: they were acting in partnership with each other.

Partnership at work

So how can you use partnership as a guiding principle at work? Whether you are a leader or just one of the team, it means you come to work with your focus on the others around you: how can you make them successful?

How do you ensure that they deliver what’s needed first time, with the minimum of fuss, conflict and hassle? Not because it will make your life easier (though it will) but because it’s one of your values, the right thing to do.

The idea galvanised Callum. He had already proved his outstanding relationship skills – with his clients, even if not recently with his team.

Coming from a spirit of partnership, it was immediately obvious to him what he should do now. He went to every team member separately, apologised for the way he had been behaving and booked time with them.

He asked questions, listened to their issues and needs and asked each what they needed in the way of support. He made promises, and he did what he promised. Within weeks, the team were happy and motivated again, communicating well with their leader, and results were back on track.

Callum had always had excellent relationship skills: he’s a good example of someone whose behaviour went off track because of a limiting belief, in this case about the behaviour expected of a leader.

At some level, he had told himself that a leader needed to be tough and autocratic, and he had forced himself to behave in a way which was totally at odds with his usual courteous style. This temporarily made it impossible for him to use his normally excellent relationship-building and people skills.

The importance of your mindset

Having good communication skills is not enough on its own to ensure that people respond well to you. The thing that makes the difference in getting others on your side and sparking their enthusiasm and motivation is your attitude to them.

Callum’s skewed belief about leadership and the consequent change in his behaviour alienated his team and upset everyone around him. His breakthrough realisation about partnership at work freed him up again to use his natural style and draw close to people again.

However excellently you perform, others will see through you if you are not coming from what’s best for them and the organisation. Explore honestly your attitude towards leading others; are you motivated by ego and self-interest, or by a genuine wish to lead a healthy organisation in which people thrive?

Imagine what it’s like working in an organisation where partnership is one of the core values, and where everybody behaves accordingly. You could come to work knowing that whatever you do, your colleagues would have your back. And they too would know that they are safe; no one is waiting to point a finger when they make a mistake.

It really is possible to have a workplace like this – if you set it up so that that’s the favoured behaviour and reward people for behaving in this way.

Consciously guide your organisation this way, involve your team in inventing creative ways to work together and build reward and remuneration structures that support working in partnership, not against each other.

It’s your organisation, and you’re its leader – how would you like it to be?

About the author

This article has been written for ByteStart by Kate Mercer, author of ‘A Buzz in the Building – how to build and lead a brilliant organisation’ and co-founder of Leaders Lab which specialises in leadership, team and organisation development, as well as delivering executive coaching on a one-to-one level.

Kate is a regular contributor to ByteStart, her other articles include;

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