May 2, 2023
by Stephen T. Messenger
I’ve been studying organizational leadership for over 20 years, and it is abundantly clear to me that my specific actions and words in every situation really matters. All eyes are upon the leader all the time, and what you say or do makes a difference.
Every person you encounter will change because of how you interact with them. After you leave, they will trend more towards feeling either better or worse because of your conversation. And, frankly, they’ll probably be talking about that interaction at their dinner table tonight.
Sometimes we quickly forget how much leaders matter to others.
The Frightening Conclusion
In 1972, a young educator named Haim G. Ginott published “Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers.” In the preface, he made a series of bold statements about how much teachers matter in the classroom.
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.
“I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized.”
While some of this language is extreme, I do agree with the premise: the person in charge greatly matters.
Real Life Examples
I have seen this in my own life, having been on both the giving and receiving ends.
- The Missed Deadline. A boss either erupts angrily without understanding the whys behind the lateness or rolls up their sleeves to break down the barriers that the employee cannot overcome.
- The Great Accomplishment. The leader either walks by, ignoring the successes of an individual or organization, or takes time to stop, thank, inquire, and recognize great work in their organization.
- The Photo Op. A boss shows up with cameras to thank people for their hard work then leaves right after the photo is taken. Or they stick around long after the cameras have left to engage others.
- The Hall Walk. Bosses hurry through hallways of people without saying hi to anyone around instead of stopping to chat and connect with their employees.
- The Speech. A leader has great words to say but doesn’t seem to mean them, as opposed to the one whose passion matches the message.
In each of these situations, employees left feeling better or worse, and it was all because of the leader’s words and actions.
Look to the Future
Ginott goes on to say: “If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them [to] become what they are capable of becoming.”
Leaders must always be providing, as Army Doctrine would say, purpose, direction, and motivation to complete the mission and improve the organization. They need to encourage a team to become more than they are. If they are demotivating people after every encounter, they’re working backwards.
All Eyes Are Fixed on You
I remember a grade school novel where a father, mother, and son were watching the horizon for a tornado to form. The father was focused on the clouds and the sky. The mother and son had their eyes fixed upon the father.
Your team does the same. If they see you are panicked, they become stressed. If you are confident and encouraging, they are inspired to follow your lead.
If I were to take Ginott’s statement and shape it to my life, I would say:
“I have happily determined that I am the decisive element of the climate of my work and home life. My daily attitude determines the mood of others around me. My words either lift others up or put them down—and they feel every word. Not interacting with someone is an interaction.
It is my response to every situation that decides whether a situation will get better or worse. I will be talked about at their dinner table that night. I decide how that story is told.”
Act accordingly and lead well!
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