Leadership can be a daunting task. It can be lonely. It can be gut-wrenching. Especially if you are changing the culture of a company.
At other times it can be exhilarating, fun, and sometimes even transcendent.
If you're a leader, you probably understand this. And as you read this, maybe today is a good day for you. But, for many of you, I am guessing it's a bit rough.
Leadership is not for the timid. Doing it right takes brave souls who have the willingness to persevere and the determination to grow. While I believe everyone has these capacities at birth, few seem to apply themselves to the deliberate practice of expanding their emotional resilience and mental focus to the point that they can be called a brave leader.
Over the last 17 years I've worked with or for numerous executives who led startups to Fortune 500 companies. I was focused on researching the causes of customer experiences and behaviors (i.e. conversions, sales, churn, etc.) that were the resulting effects of those experiences. Our goals were to sell more, save more and satisfy more.
Somewhere along this journey I began to learn about more than just customer experiences. I dug into my own personal and professional experiences. I dived deep into the causes of the very essence of human experiences. What I learned changed my view of nearly everything.
From that point forward the successful implemenation of the recommendations I made in my customer experience research projects resulted in dramatic improvements for some clients. But, for a select group of clients the recommendations ended up just becoming 'yet another' research project. No action was taken. They had a list of reasons they couldn't move forward. And, if we solved that challenge, another would inevitably arise. It took me a bit, but I eventually realized that it was not my recommendations but something deeper in my clients mental and emotional habitual patterns that caused their hesitation.
In time, I discovered several things about the leaders that made the greatest companies great and ultimately distinguished them from all of their competitors. The brave leaders of the greatest companies have daily practices that they use to be both highly effective and highly efficient. In essence, they use these practices as their north star in rough seas. They return to these proven practices each day to bravely take on the challenges facing them. When they run into an obstacle, they return to the practices. When they succeed, the credit the same practices.
What Brave Leaders Do
What is it that these leaders do? Here's the list that I've come up with. You may have some to add. They:
- Set clear intentions for themselves and they help their teams do the same. (NOTE: Intentions are more than goals.)
- Challenge themselves and others.
- Track and celebrate the success of putting in the right effort, not just reaching a destination.
- Treat trust as their most valuable currency and they invest in increasing its return.
- Build authentic relationships based on genuine caring.
- Grow as a whole person and help their team do the same.
- Ask for and accept help, while making it safe for others to do the same.
Do these seem on point or at least interesting? Keep reading below to understand why each matters and how you can apply them daily. Many of these are simple, but not easy to do. They take courage and a willingness to face one's fears, doubts and worries. This is why I have come to call leaders who engage in these practices brave leaders.
Setting Clear Intentions
We've all been inundated with advice related to goal setting. Some of it is good, but much of it is just recycled nonsense with little actual proof of it's value. Fortunately a study was finally done to prove the value of goal setting. But, it went further to show how you can achieve more with goal setting. In fact, the Dominican University study on goal setting shows that only 43% of those who just thought about a goal made significant progress whereas 76% of those who wrote down a clear goal with committed action steps and shared weekly updates with a friend achieved significant progress. Brave leaders take each of the steps described in the latter case because they know that thinking about goals alone is not enough for success.
However, the brave leader goes one step further. They help their employees do the same thing. In fact, a Gallup study on goal setting showed that leaders who helped their teams set goals had, on average, nearly ten times more employees engaged than those who leaders who left their employees to goal set on their own (38% vs 4%). And because engaged employees consistently produce higher results in every meaningful metric, this step alone can make a massive difference in a team and a company's results.
Many leaders may protest, saying they do this already. But remember, it is not one-and-done activity that is for January alone. This is a daily practice that breeds real long-term success.
Now, it is important to note that goals alone are not enough. Intentions are key. And, intentions go deeper. Intentions involve how we are going to be while we are achieving a goal that we are working toward. What is our mindset? What will we choose to feel? Who will we show up as when we are faced with challenges or we achieve success.
I've spent nearly two decades finding ways to bring together the quantitative data companies collect from sales, clicks and cancelations with the qualitative data of emotions, influences and opinions. Studying one without the other may give you some insights. But, when you bring both together, you have a powerful combination that provides the key to lasting success.
The same is true of your daily goals and intentions. Decide what type of person you want to be today while you are achieving or failing to achieve your goals. Help your team do the same. What a tragedy would it be to have achieved our goals and yet been miserable or been the source of misery to those we are closest to daily.
I often remind myself of what Steve Jobs said,
"I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."
To me, in the context of the commencement address in which he made this statement, I believe he was referring to the quality of his life, not just the quantity of his achievements.
Challenge Yourself and Others
As a researcher of human experience I study many theories and models of psychology and behavior. There is one model that has always fascinated me because it resonates so deeply with the way I work and with what I have discovered as a key to excellent customer experiences. This is the model of Flow, conceived by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (Watch his TedX Talk below for more insights.)
Flow is alternatively defined as 'optimal experience' by psychologists because of the depth of connection we can achieve with our best self. While in this state we lose track of time, self-consciousness fades, we are at the edge of control and we even feel at one with the task we are performing. This is truly the edge of where our skills are tested and expanded in the face of a challenge. Athletes call this 'being in the zone' while artists describe it as transcendence because things just happen automatically and their well-trained bodies and minds take over to achieve spectacular results.
Flow theory postulates that a person has to meet three conditions achieve a flow state:
- Be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals
- Receive clear and immediate feedback regarding your progress
- Perceived challenges must be in balance with perceived skills.
When leaders move into a flow state, they perform a peak levels. When their teams achieve this state, it seems that magic happens.
Brave leaders focus daily on creating the environment that allows and encourages their team to participate in the flow state. They do this by helping their team set daily intentions with an eye on the right level of challenge with a clear set of goals as well as identifying how progress can be measured and feedback provided on a moment-to-moment basis. This feedback may be something binary (i.e. yes-no or on-off), quantitative or progressive (i.e. checking an item off a list, etc.). It should also be emotional (i.e. I feel stuck, I feel confident, etc.).
When we partner with companies in doing customer experience improvement efforts, we apply a similar method. First, we research what customers say when they are having an excellent, fair or terrible experience. Then we teach employees how to listen moment-to-moment for customer feedback or to evaluate customer emotional expressions. Based on this feedback the employees know to engage in actions that will enhance good customer experiences or resolve poor experiences at that moment.
Track and Celebrate the Right Efforts
Douglas Conant, the turnaround CEO of Campbell Soup Company, credits his practice of sending handwritten notes that celebrated specific contributions of employees as a key to his success as a brave leader.
"Most cultures don’t do a good job of celebrating contributions. So I developed the practice of writing notes to our employees. Over 10 years, it amounted to more than 30,000 notes, and we had only 20,000 employees. Wherever I’d go in the world, in employee cubicles you’d find my handwritten notes posted on their bulletin boards."
Douglas Conant, Former CEO, Campbell Soup Company
It is critical to celebrate success, but as you can see from flow psychology, immediate feedback that one is headed in the right direction is essential for peak performance. When you focus on celebrating that a person engaged in the right effort, you encourage a growth mindset. As research shows, those who have a growth mindset are more likely to take on greater challenges, have more energy and enthusiasm and achieve more success over the long-term. Those who only see success in the destination will tend to withdraw from new challenges and will succumb to the fear that they might not be good enough.
As a brave leader, you must be willing to look at the efforts you and your team are taking and correct where you are off course as well as celebrate where you are on course, even if the target seems further away than you expected. Modeling behaviors (i.e. doing what you teach), the language you use (i.e. 'great effort today with that challenging prospect' vs. 'way to close the deal'), and giving positive behavioral examples (i.e. reading excellent customer reviews, etc.) on a daily basis can impact team performance almost immediately. Researcher, Carol Dweck, showed that a person can be subconsciously shifted from a fixed to a growth mindset with just a few of the right words.
Treat trust as Your Most Valuable Currency
When I speak at conferences, one of the most popular questions I am asked is 'What drives an excellent customer experience?' Usually they want the 'one thing' that makes the difference. But there isn't one thing. There are several factors and the influence of each factor depends on the industry, company, product, marketing messages and a host of other variables. However, there is one constant. Trust.
If you read any excellent review you'll see a common thread. It is a theme of being delighted or impressed that this company, employees or product actually did more than the customer expected. In other words, the company set an expectation by making a promise in their marketing campaigns and then they more than kept that promise. Or, the company's previous customers made promises under the auspices of recommendations or reviews, and the company lived up to and exceeded the expectations the promises evoked.
Trust is a currency. In fact, it is the currency of currencies.
What are a piece of paper, or the numbers in a bank ledger or the stars on your online review worth? It all comes down to trust.
Brave leaders know this. They understand that if they are not trusted, even the truth they speak will be greeted with skepticism. So, they work daily to promise what they can deliver. They work to exceed that promise. And, when they fail to do so, they are transparent quickly and set an action plan to remedy it. They teach their teams to do the same.
Look to the reviews on Glassdoor.com to see how employees to express their opinions of companies and management. This site is a go to resource for employees evaluating their next potential employer. Current or former employees provide reviews and ratings that help other potential employees learn what can be trusted and what to be skeptical about. Leaders have to be brave to face what is now being said publicly about their company and their behaviors. And they have to act bravely to do the right thing to build trust.
"Trust is a core currency of any relationship. Sometimes our need to control and micromanage everything erodes our confidence in ourselves and others. The truth: People are much more capable than we think. A hearty dose of trust is often what's needed to unlock the magic. Go ahead, have faith."
Kris Carr - Creator of the 'Crazy Sexy' Well-Being Brand
You'll find that brave leaders trust in a deeper way. They tend to trust in a power greater than themselves. Some may call this power 'God' others have a different name for it. Regardless, they believe in and operate from the world-view that there is something greater than themselves helping them navigate through the challenges of life. This provides these leaders the confidence to go on when it seems illogical. It gives them the strength to get up after being knocked down hard. It is a source of comfort during the storm that seems to have no end and it is the reason for hope when only hopelessness makes sense.
Can you measure trust?
Researchers like Dr. Paul Zak are working on it and cracking the code. He has led the way in some profound research already. We still have much to learn. And, there are elements of trust that may not be measurable, like so many other emotions we have. Therefore, the logic of the actions we take under the influence of trust may still be a mystery. However, every brave leader does behave in a manner that proves he is trustworthy and he does trust others.
Build Authentic Relationships Based on Genuine Caring
According to research conducted by Google, leaders "who 'express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being' outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work."
Is it any surprise that employees who feel like they are interesting and cared for perform better? Of course not. But, many leaders don't understand how to apply this on a daily basis.
Being aware of personal and professional challenges, opportunities and goals is a key part of the relationship building process. If you are a brave leader you are already doing these based on what was described in the sections above. In addition, taking the time to engage in water-cooler conversation, team-building and even let down your guard to have some fun can really build relationships. And, if your team is customer-facing, they will learn how to do this with the customers in a way that generates more sales, better service and higher satisfaction.
After trust, we see that most companies earn excellent customer ratings when the employees build a relationship-even if momentary-with the customer. Often the customer reviews will even mention how the leader relationship to the employee is impressive and should be applauded. (For even more insights from our customer experience research click here.)
"More than half of people who leave their jobs do so because of their relationship with their boss. Smart companies make certain their managers know how to balance being professional with being human. These are the bosses who celebrate an employee's success, empathize with those going through hard times, and challenge people, even when it hurts."
Dr. Travis Bradberry - Expert on Emotional Intelligence
Grow as a Whole Person
There was a time, years ago, when I worked in Corporate America that I felt like I had to check my soul at the door every morning as I walked in. Don't get me wrong, I worked for a great company and I loved my role, but I just had to leave so much of myself behind to be the person I thought the company wanted me to be in order to earn a promotion. It nearly killed me. I eventually left to start my own company. I have no regrets about working for the company or leaving the company. It served me in many ways. It was the catalyst for me to realize there is much more to life than just my career.
Brave leaders know this too. They invest the time and money in growing themselves as a person and as a leader. They invest in helping their team do to same through recommendations of books, paying for seminars or onsite training, or encouraging employees to take personal growth courses.
We have come into an era where there is an abundance of evidence that shows our mental health and emotional resilience is directly related to our ability to be creative, productive and manage stress well. Leaders who ignore this reality put their lives and the lives of their employees in jeopardy not to mention the profitability of the company. We've seen clear connections between the companies that offer training to help leaders and employees personally grow and the profits of the company growing.
There is no better way to show people you care than by letting them know that you are aware they're not there just to serve the mission of the company. They are there to earn money to care for their family, to be fulfilled, to contribute and give to the world, to earn more than they need so they can take vacation and spend quality time with family, friends or maybe just learn more about who they are and what they are capable of by engaging in a hobby. When you show an interest in and actively support their growth you and your company will be rewarded. Do the same for them and for yourself.
"More than once in the history of Whole Foods Market, the company was unable to collectively evolve until I myself was able to evolve - in other words, I was holding the company back. My personal growth enabled the company to evolve." - John Mackey - CEO, Whole Foods Market
Ask For and Accept Help
Brave leaders know they don't have to answer every question or or solve every problem. They can ask for help and be vulnerable. Their vulnerability unleashes a strength within their team.
Andrew Carnegie, the king of steel and the richest man of his day was aware of this. He told Napoleon Hill, author of "Think and Grow Rich," that the best way to lead was to form a mastermind that brings together those with the highly specialized skills you need for the "coordination of knowledge and effort, in a spirit of harmony...for the attainment of a definite purpose."
When you bring people around you who are smarter and more capable and you organize the thinking and vision of the team, you unite the minds in a way that increases awareness and creativity. Research shows that certain structures in our brains can create connections between leaders and followers or collaborators so closely that they the individuals mirror each other's feelings and brain chemistry. The result of their collaborative thinking can be ideas that are more powerful than any single individual could have come up with on their own.
"Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change."
Becoming an even Braver Leader
As you consider the daily practices of other brave leaders, you may realize you have areas where you too could improve your leadership. While it is not for everyone, we have created a program to teach advanced leadership skills to those who want to achieve more, more quickly. We call the program Brave Leadership Mastery. It is available by application only. We leverage the latest research in human experience to help you overcome the mental and emotional patterns holding you back from success. We help you instill daily and weekly practices that are proven to work through rigorous double-blind tests at Harvard, Stanford and other top universities.
If you'd like to see if you qualify for this unique program of Brave Leadership Mastery, we invite you to apply at www.BraveLeadershipMastery.com.
Tony Bodoh is the co-author of the #1 best selling book, "The Complete Experience: Unlocking the Secrets of Online Reviews that Drive Customer Loyalty" and he is the creator of the 30 Day CX Challenge where employees quickly learn how to really listen for the hidden patterns in what customers say or write and then how to effortlessly act to evoke a 5-Star customer experience.