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Leadership: One Size Does Not Fit All

So you made it, you’re in charge! Congratulations, hopefully you have been working on your leadership skills throughout your lifetime. If not, don’t worry, it’s a journey and I’m here to help you. 

Leaders are not born, they are developed over time, and I mean a long time. After four years at West Point, one of the premier leadership training institutions in the world, when you graduate and enter the Army, your education in leadership is still just beginning. It requires continual work to improve but one of the key things that good leaders have figured out is that when dealing with your people, everyone needs something different.  This understanding and the ability to act on it opens the door to great things.

One of the most critical factors of leadership is understanding your people. When good leadership is in place in a company, it can be felt throughout the entire organization. With good leadership, corporate culture isn’t forced, it’s developed. Everyone understands the vision and goals of the organization, and everyone has input into how the vision and goals can be improved because communication is daily and open. Employees feel that they are an important part of the whole and that every job matters within the company. The results of good leadership are high morale, good employee retention, and sustainable long-term success.

Now how do you get to that point? How do you develop that kind of culture? Here is the first key. Do whatever you can to understand your people. For a long time, there was the thought that the way to deal with subordinates was to deal with everyone exactly the same; that way, there was never the appearance of favoritism. While great for appearances, it isn’t really practical because everyone is different and has different needs! People are extremely complex. Individual members of a team all require different leader input to be successful; leadership can’t be one size fits all. This is because individual members require different information and guidance to function. Some people need very precise and detailed, step by step instructions or explanations of what is expected; others just need a good idea of the required outcome. They both are equally capable of getting the job done, but they approach it very differently. A good leader recognizes what his people need to maximize their contributions, and sets them up for success.  

When I was a young Army officer one of my teams consisted of a cast right out of a movie. I had a Sergeant who was working on his second Master’s degree (his first was in Mathematics), one Specialist who thought the Rambo movies were the pinnacle of film making and was hoping the Soviets were going to try to come through the Fulda Gap, and another who was saving his money so when his enlistment was up he could go to college. Now when dealing with my Rambo fan, let’s call him “Raven” (yes, he wanted that to be his call sign) I had to be very specific in my instructions or I was likely to get something out of a Rambo movie as the outcome. Very over the top, and not really thought out at all, pure response to the stimulus. My second Specialist, I could vaguely describe what I wanted the outcome to look like, and that was all he needed, it was done efficiently and quickly, often times ingeniously. We were a very highly functioning team and were picked to represent our unit in several competitions. We won most (not all) of these competitions; we truly enjoyed working together and that was due to our team culture. Everyone was valued, knew they were part of a great team, was thoroughly briefed on what was expected, and we played to each other’s strengths.  

I know some of you are saying things like “I run a company with hundreds (or thousands) of people, there is no way I can know everyone THAT well!”. Thirty years ago, I would have agreed (and I would have been wrong then too). There are all kinds of tools out there that will help you get to know your people better, find one, find several, and use them! These tools won’t help you with knowing what someone’s favorite desert is, but they will give you a framework and common language to understand your employees and how best to help them. 

Leadership is foremost about knowing your people, and then using that knowledge to put them in the best position to succeed. Once you begin to do that, the logical extension is every individual you lead is going to need something different from you. Embrace it, use it to build a culture that honors and celebrates diversity….diversity of backgrounds, approaches and experiences. You’ll build great teams that will do great work.