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Ask any group of managers if they view themselves as an elite within their organization and you can be sure they will deny it. You'll hear comments such as: "I have an open-door policy" and "I take pride in always being accessible and approachable."
And in most cases, these managers will really believe what they are saying. What they don't realize, however, are the many invisible barriers — the "glass doors" — they put in place.
Leaders remove these barriers and that is part of what separates them from managers.
Management perks and privileges — such as parking spaces or special offices — create separations. Similarly, employees find it hard to get any sense of collaboration when their bosses hold exclusive meetings or conferences, hang out in management cliques, use condescending or dehumanizing language, or withhold financial statements or other "confidential" information.
Leaders put a real effort into listening to and learning from people throughout their organization. Listening is the clearest way we can show respect and build trust.
By contrast, managers don't listen to "their people" — usually because they're too busy telling them what they need.
Managers spend major amounts of time in their offices, or in meetings with other managers and specialists. They often control and command by e-mail because they see it as a more efficient use of their time. Occasionally, they might do an organizational survey, or hold a meeting or special event for "their people."
Strong leaders, on the other hand, have their own kind of "closed-door" policy. They're not trying to keep people out, it's just that most of the time you'll find their office doors closed and the lights off — because leaders are so rarely satisfied with staying behind a desk.
Leaders know that an office is a dangerous place from which to manage an organization. Leaders also recognize that few of their frontline people are going to be assertive enough to break through the invisible management barriers to come into their office and raise an issue or even send an e-mail.
Studies show that in many organizations, a majority of frontline people are afraid to speak up. That's why leaders spend huge amounts of time with people throughout their organizations. They're busy listening at breakfasts, lunches, barbecues and town hall meetings. They're conducting surveys, participating in cafeteria conversations, working together with people on the frontlines and attending celebration events.
It's when times are toughest that true leadership becomes obvious. This is when much-repeated claims such as "our people are our most important assets" are proven true, or shown to be just hollow rhetoric.
How managers handle economic downturns and sudden cost-reduction pressures, for example, speaks volumes about their leadership. If an organization has strong leaders who truly care about people and want to build long-term trust, layoffs are always a last, desperate step.
Leading successfully in tough times calls for openness, a willingness to outline the difficult situations clearly, as well as an ability to express your own pain.
Leaders use all the methods at their disposal - including surveys, meetings, e-mail exchanges, focus groups and phone hotlines — to brainstorm, get input and set priorities.
Then, they communicate, communicate and communicate some more. Leaders know it is almost impossible to tell people too much about what's going on and why.
True leaders understand that there's no shortcut to reaching their organization's preferred future. It takes clear vision, a steady hand, and the discipline to avoid quick-fix solutions, however tempting they may be.
There are no leadership formulas. But managers keep searching for them anyway. So they buy the books, hire the consultants, and set up the training programs — whatever happens to offer the latest steps, secrets, or systems that will transform mundane Clark Kent managers into Superman leaders. Most of it is just a waste of time and money.
After three decades of experience with hundreds of management teams, I have found that many of the "latest" management theories amount to little more than a rehash of what has gone before.
That's why I find myself in vigorous agreement with MIT's Sloan School of Management professor Edgar Schein, when he says: "We go through cycles. Every few years we rediscover formal planning, then we rediscover the importance of people, and then in another few years we discover cost control. When you look over the last 40 or 50 years, there is nothing much that is genuinely new. It is a recycling and elaboration of something that has been proposed as far back as Plato."
The fact is that meaningful change happens only by applying timeless leadership principles. The results probably won't be instantaneous, but they will last.
Leadership is an inside job. We change "them" by first changing "me." A growing mountain of research, such as that on emotional intelligence, shows that leadership begins "in here" and moves "out there." That calls for changing our lifestyle. It means developing new habits.
Here are a few suggestions:
Jim Clemmer’s practical leadership books, keynote presentations, workshops, and team retreats have helped hundreds of thousands of people worldwide improve personal, team, and organizational leadership. Visit his web site, www.clemmergroup.com, for a huge selection of free practical resources including nearly 300 articles, dozens of video clips, team assessments, leadership newsletter, Improvement Points service, and popular leadership blog. Jim's five international bestselling books include The VIP Strategy, Firing on All Cylinders, Pathways to Performance, Growing the Distance, and The Leader's Digest. His latest book is Moose on the Table: A Novel Approach to Communications @ Work.