Nobody leads. They are only followed. My experience as the president and CEO of three companies and the general manager of three others has led me to some personal views of how to interact with your employees to move an organization in the desired direction. I emphasize personal view, because no two leaders are the same, and leadership must be strongly rooted in your own personality and in the environment in which your business currently operates.
First, leaders must build trust. Your employees will decide if you are trustworthy enough to follow before they decide whether you are smart enough to follow or whether your strategies are brilliant enough to follow. Trust with employees comes from the same source trust comes from in all relationships — honesty.
Surprisingly, many leaders find this difficult. These leaders want maximum control over the behavior of their employees, while minimizing employees’ freedom of action. You may not believe this, but how many times have you heard something like, “We can’t tell them that. They’ll all quit?” Or been tempted to split hairs when an employee asks a difficult question about a future decision with, “We have no plans,” when you are 90 percent sure you know what you are going to do? This kind of borderline dishonesty is a trust-buster.
Second, leaders must know what they’re talking about. Asking good questions is not enough. When a leader is not familiar enough with the subject matter of a difficult issue, asking good questions merely gets the organization to re-state what it already knows and reassert that it is already doing the right things. You will never know more than your subordinates in their areas of expertise, but you must know enough to lay out a concrete vision of a future state and be close enough that good subordinates will build on the strengths of your arguments, and correct your weaknesses. If you have grown up in your business, this won’t be difficult, but if you have not, you must commit yourself to hands-on learning and education and training of yourself.
Third, leaders must recognize that they are not the only one who sets direction in the organization — in fact, every employee can and will make decisions that move the company forward. You must create an environment in which individual employees can diagnose the problems which impede their own successful performance, develop solutions, and implement. In World War II, Eisenhower said, “Invade Europe,” but thousands of individuals actually led the assault.
Lastly, leaders must respect the humanity of their employees. There is never, ever room for tyrant leaders. You must recognize the awesome power your position already has even before you open your mouth. The power to fire is the power to devastate, and, by itself, can create dysfunctional relationships between leaders and followers. Do not add to it through abusive behavior, bullying, or not listening. On the contrary, you must demonstrate to your followers that you have their interests in mind when you choose the direction for your company. There is a reason why the captain goes down with his or her ship; the passengers must know your welfare is completely tied to theirs. You must demonstrate a keen understanding of that to lead.
On top of all these principles, a leader must be visible and accessible. Communicate. Stay out of the corner office. Spend as much time on the floor as you do with PowerPoint. Leadership is a retail activity, not a wholesale activity.
John Hamilton is president and CEO of Veyance Technologies Inc., the exclusive manufacturer of Goodyear Engineered Products worldwide. He has a BSE in electrical engineering and computer science from Princeton University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He has previously held leadership roles at Electro-Motive Diesel, Tokheim Corp. and The Fairchild Corp.