11 ways to be a better leader

Small business leadership and management

Oct. 17 is Bosses Day and we’re in the middle of fall, but I want to skip ahead a season to talk about leadership: What can you learn about small business leadership from an old Christmas movie?

Quite a lot, if you stop and think about it. See if you agree.

For many families, watching some of the classic Christmas movies around the holidays is a tradition, and “White Christmas” is often on that list of must-see movies.

The story spans World War II through the period following the war and one of the main plot points of the movie centers around the loyalty soldiers have for their former commanding general. Here’s the song lyric that expresses that feeling: We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go…

This highlights the first point I want to make. All of the following pieces of advice depend on understanding and appreciating this critical fact:

People follow leaders. We all need to understand that there is a profound difference between the attitudes of managers and leaders. Managers see the people and systems under their authority as chess pieces to be moved around the chess board as they see fit.

However, there is a big difference between inanimate chess pieces and people. Chess pieces can’t move off their squares, or change their qualities if they don’t like the square that has been assigned to them. People have reactions to the moves they have been forced to make. If their reaction is negative, that can have a profound effect on your business.

I’ve heard some small business owners express the attitude that since they’re paying the employees’ wages, the employees should be willing to do whatever is asked of them. While you can make a logical argument for that, before you head down that road you need to ask yourself a simple question: Do you want your employees to be carrying out their duties with a satisfied and pleasant attitude or do you want them to be working under duress?

With this understanding, let’s get into some specifics and I want to start by pulling another lyric from the same song I mentioned above. It will give us our first two specific points: Why are the soldiers willing to follow their leader anywhere?

Because we love him, we love him, Especially when he keeps us on the ball.

  1. Build loyalty. In all your actions, ask yourself if what you are planning to do will build loyalty or reduce loyalty. And if you suspect an action of yours may reduce loyalty, but you feel it must be done, be sure you aren’t acting in haste. Pause, rethink what you’re about to do and try to find ways to get people on board. Find a way to get buy-in, which is point number three below.
  2. Develop your talent. The soldiers sang, “Especially when he keeps us on the ball.” They were expressing the fact that they appreciated how the general brought out the best in them. Recognize the potential in your employees and their aspirations. If they sense you are invested in their future, they will invest in the future of your company. Give leave time for classes. Send employees to conferences. Let them develop new skills on the job.
  3. Get buy in. When you face major challenges or need to embark on projects that will impact people’s jobs, get them in on the process from the very beginning. It may seem that this would slow down the pace of change, but it usually does the opposite. If you try to drop a major change down on your team from the clear blue sky, many of them will resist it and you’ll end up spending time and emotional energy trying to get them on board.
  4. Create a teamwork attitude. Charles Erwin Wilson was CEO of General Motors and later U.S. Secretary of Defense. He once said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.” This wrongly puts the emphasis on the company. You should view your business from the opposite perspective. Don’t emphasize the company as much as you emphasize your team. When your team is clicking on all cylinders, your company will prosper.
  5. Communicate openly and often. Gone are the days of once-a-year formal reviews as the only time you discuss job performance. Keep the channels of communication open all the time. Have shorter “sit downs” with employees frequently. Praise good work and acknowledge it to the entire team. Take the fear out of the phrase, “The boss wants to see you.”
  6. Be a listener. There are a lot of proverbs and adages that make this point, such as “Be quick to listen and slow to speak,” and “You have two ears but just one mouth for a reason.” Listening is an acquired skill. Most of us are forming our response while listening rather than focusing our energy on really understanding the person who is speaking. This is doubly important when there may be conflict or controversy involved.
  7. Establish and maintain core values. A business entity and the enterprise of “conducting” business are both intricate webs of personal human interactions. You need to have core values that govern these personal interactions. Honesty and integrity are, of course, givens, but they need to be constantly reinforced. Speed, diligence, accuracy, extra effort, charity, and others may also fit your business.
  8. Be a modeler more than a manager. Much more is “caught than taught.” You need to consistently live out the qualities you want in your organization. It seems that we all have a built-in hypocrite detector with hair-trigger sensitivity (even though we’re often guilty ourselves). If you’re a yeller, it gives your team permission to be yellers. If you approach difficult situations with resolute calm and measured responses, that will eventually permeate your organization.
  9. Put systems in place to make work easier. A quality control professional once told me that a guiding principal is that management is responsible for every error. Don’t blame your employees when mistakes are made. Develop systems and training that support your employees. This is especially true for small business owners who have built up their businesses from scratch; they know all the hidden potholes and expect others to as well.
  10. Maintain forward momentum. Always have new organizational goals and commit your team to growth. If your employees start to see their jobs as “the daily grind,” you’ll soon find your business dead in the water. We need challenges to keep us engaged and interested.
  11. Keep growing. Not only does your team need to keep growing, you do too. Connect with a mentor, a mastermind group, or a structured learning setting. Read some biographies of great leaders. As your company grows, more will be demanded of you. Be ready for it!

Some people may be “natural-born leaders,” but it isn’t that many and honestly, the world – including the business world – needs more good leaders than just those who seem to have leadership built into their DNA. So take leadership seriously. Continually grow into the role and the responsibilities.