In the work that we do with leaders, we spend a lot of time investigating reputations. What do a leader’s immediate team really think of her? What do the folks four tiers down in the company really feel about the CEO? How do other leaders in the same industry perceive our leader?
It is all very revealing, and the information we gather is usually a helpful tool for the invested leader. Having done all this research over the years, let me list for you the traits people mention most about the leaders they admire and want to follow.
The positive trait we hear most often is that a given upper level leader has a common touch. He drives a pickup truck when he could insist on a limo. He flies commercial when he could commandeer the company jet. She eats in the employee café when she could be having the expensive two martini lunch with her cronies. He wears jeans and tells goofy jokes, “just like one of us.” A common touch from the powerful and well-to-do—this is what people mention most.
Remembering important moments is mentioned to us the second most frequently. I’ve heard employees tell me with tears in their eyes about the CEO who calls on birthdays and anniversaries, the boss who dropped by the graduation party, the supervisor who sent a get-well gift, and vice-president who showed up at the high school football game all received tender mention.
The third most often mentioned behavior is caring in times of hardship. Any leader who takes a pay cut when everyone else has to is respected. The owner who sat in the hospital room all night after that surgery is spoken of as “nearly one of the family” now. The CEO who took the executive assistant’s son to lunch when he didn’t get into the college of his choice and who then helped the boy get into an even better school is referred to with honor and undying devotion. No one received glowing praise like the plant manager who took one employee’s daughter to a Father/Daughter Dance when the biological father was nowhere to be found. His picture hangs in the family’s home to this day.
Listening is the fourth most mentioned behavior. When injuries were rising, “he heard us” and made a change. When outdated computers made for miserable work, “she bit the bullet and got us what we needed.” She cared. She listened. She acted. When a young hire thought he was overlooked and wondered if he could rise in his firm, an older executive listened, guided, helped the younger man through a master’s degree and held the promotion party in his own home. What was remembered? “He heard me out. He made it safe to talk. I’ll never forget it.”
Now, we can hear these reports and turn this information into behaviors without heart. Perhaps some good things will happen. But if you read between the lines, people are looking for leaders who are “real,” who care, who keep it simple, and who know how to lead. These are the kind of people they most want to follow.
Ponder this. Hold it up against your leadership. Make the changes you need to make—but do it from the inside out.