“When things go wrong in your command, start wading for the reason in increasing larger concentric circles around your own desk.” – General Bruce D. Clark
Leading your team to reach their potential requires you to balance the tension between leading your team to stretch to achieve at their capability, and overextending your team past what they’re able to do. Sometimes leaders have to inspire people past what those people think they can do–that’s growth and development. Push too hard, however, and leaders can break people and organizations. It’s a delicate balance and requires leaders to know their people and what those people are actually capable of doing. In the military, we expect leaders to train alongside their troops–teaching, guiding, coaching, and even pushing them to excellence and proficiency. Leaders who know their people well will lead them to high levels of performance.
Know Your People
It’s a common theme here on General Leadership that leaders must thoroughly know their people, and it’s fundamental to leadership at any level. Leaders are in the people business, which is why we always make the distinction between leaders and managers. We “manage” processes and resources–we lead people. In order to be an effective leader, you have to know what motivates your people and what they can do. Each person is different and requires something different from you as a leader. This person has a creative streak, that person is good with numbers. Knowing a person’s strengths and weaknesses assures you are able to assign them tasks commensurate with their skills and motivations. Doing this right means developing relationships with the team and being genuinely interested in their development. At a basic level the answer is simple: spend time with the team.Visit their work areas, ask about them and their families, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and be genuinely interested in them as people. In doing this, leaders can develop an understanding of who their people are and what are their capabilities.
Help People Reach Their Potential But Know Their Limits
Leaders can push people to their limit so their teams reach their potential, but must be careful not to go too far. As a military leader I’ve always been careful to listen to my sergeants and watch for signs of fatigue among the troops. The men and women I serve with are dedicated and mission oriented–they’ll extend themselves well past their breaking point if we allow them to do so. Military leaders are constantly monitoring their troops to ensure their well being, while at the same time pushing them to learn new skills and be more efficient. In this way, we develop camaraderie, learn the strengths of those we lead, and are able to place people in the right positions to contribute.
A leader who leads their team to high achievement is usually the one who believes in them the most. Many people only need a little encouragement to stretch themselves past where they think is their limit. That type of leadership demands a positive attitude, technical competence, and a vision for success. A leader who can teach and lead at the same time is a leader who can get the best from every person they lead. Military leaders know this, which is why we spend so much time developing competence and maintaining the morale of the troops.
Employ Your Team
The team might excel if they’re good–but they will excel if they’re well led! It’s a leader’s responsibility to know the team and employ them within their capabilities.
Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and blogs.