By Lisa Jackson
In a recent leadership retreat, I asked this question: “What is the most important leadership characteristic?”
People offered great answers like “Persistence.” “Commitment.” “Passion” – and my least favor answer “an MBA.” I then asked the group to pull out the credit-card sized plastic envelopes I had passed out at the beginning of the meeting. “Please take this gift out of the case … turn it over … and look for the real answer.” On the backside of the pretty picture embossed on this sheet of plastic was … a mirror.
“The real answer” I said “is your willingness to regularly look in the mirror. Whatever is happening in your business that you don’t like is a reflection of your leadership. You may not be to blame, but you are responsible.”
If leadership is “the ability to inspire people to go where they wouldn’t otherwise” then the most important quality of a leader is 100 percent self-awareness about why people follow you – or don’t. My favorite definition of self-awareness appeared in an Inc. article in October 2007: “Self-awareness is being conscious of what you’re good at while acknowledging what you still have to learn. This includes admitting when you don’t have the answer and owning up to mistakes.”
Unlike the queen in Snow White, a humble leader will see his or her real reflection in the mirror and do something to change the reflection when they don’t like what they see – not shatter the mirror.
And that’s where the “following” part comes into play. People will start to follow you for lots of reasons – your vision, you have a good smile or story, they need a job. But as Twitter demonstrates, un-following is a click away.
People stay with you because you build trust. And trust is transparent – it can’t be faked. It shines through people who regularly polish the reflection in their mirror. And trust is the baseline heartbeat that ensures your corporate culture can pass the mirror test.
In today’s era of untrustworthy leaders who have faked their way to the top through power abuse, there is nothing we should value as business owner and leader more than trust.
• People who trust their leaders work harder and give more discretionary effort;
• People who trust their vendors give them more repeat business;
• People who are give trust away also find they attract trust: Employees, customers, and vendors become more trustworthy in an environment of trust. It also requires less rigor from your attorney (whose real value isn’t predicting every possible way someone could sue you).
Here are the top ten signs your leadership is building trust, and is being reflected in a strong workplace culture:
1. Mistakes are admitted in your company without finger-pointing or blame.
2. Frank, honest conversations happen in meetings you attend – feedback is as natural as breathing.
3. The right customers are seeking to do more business with your company.
4. Employees joke around you.
5. When you Google “complaints about ___________ (your company)” nothing comes up.
6. People look you in the eye and say good things behind your back (see “Secret Power” article for how to cultivate that knowledge).
7. People find it easy and natural to reach out to someone in the company beyond their team to solve a problem.
8. People talk about the “values” on the posters and use them as a guideline for decision making and providing coaching to each other.
9. People rarely quit and if they do, you don’t hear “I was offered a lucrative opportunity I couldn’t pass up.” In fact, there is a backlog of resumes of people wanting to work for you.
10. The word “We” is used more often than the word “I” in your company.
Take a brave step today: Buy a mirror and place it on your desk as a reminder of the only leadership trait that really matters to a culture that gets out of the fog, and is rolling in more growth, profit, and fun than your competitors.
Lisa Jackson is an author, speaker, and expert in small changes that improve culture’s impact on business performance, especially during mergers and strategy shifts. Look for her new book “Small Change: Natural Truths for Transforming Corporate Culture” this fall. Visit her on the web at http://www.jacksonandschmidt.com.