I believe that the most important roles a leader must serve are to protect and provide. I want to explore this further by considering how a leader can provide support, clarity, and results.
Note: This is part of a series sharing my thoughts on leadership. Read the introduction here.
In my last installment of my series on leadership, I explored the role of a leader to protect. In my opinion, this comprises half of what a leader must do in order to be successful, with the other half being to provide. This may be an oversimplification, but it has been helpful for me to think about leadership in simpler terms so that I can better understand how to work to improve.
Again, these thoughts are set to the backdrop of my favorite definition of leadership by Niel Nickolaisen, our CIO at O.C. Tanner:
A leader is someone others choose to follow
Another archetypal leader that comes to mind for me is a kind of trail guide. I picture someone who has experience with the terrain, knows how to prepare for success, and is out in front of a group, showing them the way. The guide leads the group through crowded forests, up mountain passes, past precarious cliffs to an end destination that is fulfilling and rewarding for all. Along the way, the guide gives encouragement, performs first aid, assists in gathering nourishment, and ultimately is responsible for the group arriving safely.
In business, and in life, the role of a leader is similar, although perhaps less rugged at times. There are many ways that a leader can provide, and I will focus on these three:
When I originally thought of these principles, I paired them together with those from the role to protect. So, a leader will protect individuals and provide them support. A leader will protect the team and provide them clarity. And a leader will protect the company and provide it results. After thinking about these more, I have realized that all of the concepts are more intertwined.
One of the first things that a leader must provide is support. Thinking first of providing support to individuals, a leader can do that through scheduled time. If the leader is also the reporting manager for an individual, that scheduled time should take the form of a regular one-to-one meeting. It is the leader’s responsibility to carve out that time, but the time belongs to the individual. This should be a time where the leader can learn how more about the individual and how to better support them. These meetings work best when regularly scheduled in advance, and when both participants can contribute to the agenda beforehand.
For those situations when the leader is not the direct manager of an individual, having scheduled time might look a little different. It could still take the form of one-to-one meetings, but it could also look like regular time to review work or to ask questions. The key is that the individual knows that they have your attention for a certain time, preferably undivided.
This can feel both overwhelming and comforting at the same time. It can be overwhelming if you are a leader responsible for many people. You may be wondering how you will ever find the time to devote to each person individually. As a father of seven children, I am familiar with this particular form of overwhelm.
On the other hand, there is comfort in the fact that scheduling time for your people doesn’t require any special skills. You don’t actually have to be the best listener, or the most personable, or any superlative at all. You just have to be willing to put in the effort to show that you care. Just by scheduling the time, and muddling through as best as you can, you are clearly communicating to your people that they are valuable to you—valuable enough to displace other things that you could be doing.
Clarity strikes me as a concept for which we all naturally yearn. As the book of Proverbs says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” I have learned, through my experiences with mental illness, that uncertainty is a major trigger for many people. It gets exaggerated in those who struggle with some form of mental illness, but it affects all of us. A leader can do a great deal to instill calm and assurance that we can deal with the uncertainty that must exist, while simultaneously removing whatever is unnecessary.
For a team in particular, one of the greatest ways that a leader can provide clarity is through defined work. When a team can come together around a shared mission that they all understand and can see a path to accomplish, or at least to begin, something magical seems to happen. No longer are people spending mental energy grappling with the unknown—instead they are able to apply themselves completely to implementing the vision. People are more engaged and excited to come to work. As a software engineer, the lack of defined work is perhaps one of the largest factors I have seen in people leaving an organization.
This clarity can come to individuals in ways that unlock their potential as well. When someone knows exactly what is expected of them, and is empowered to take steps to fulfill those expectations, they often thrive and excel. When we don’t really know what success looks like, the situation can become demoralizing because we never know if we are making progress, treading water, or backsliding.
Companies also benefit from a leader who is able to provide clarity. Sometimes, the greatest service one can do is to say no to the right things at the right time. If a leader can be clear on what is included in a particular endeavor, and what needs to wait for the future, a company can relax and trust that things are going to work out. Of course, this requires the leader to provide the final piece as well.
A leader is most often judged on what the people they lead can deliver. As an individual contributor, you are evaluated based on your personal results, but as a leader, you are responsible for the results of others. This can be disorientating and intimidating to new leaders. Earlier in my career, I found the lack of personal delivery a challenge in my creative fulfillment. Over time, I found greater joy and satisfaction in seeking to unlock others in their potential, and to see what we can accomplish as a group.
One of the best tools that a leader has to influence the results that are delivered is process. This can be an unglamorous view, but it is the simple, almost unseen structures that a leader puts into place that can truly facilitate people’s achievement. As a leader becomes more comfortable with process, and understands better how to shape and mold it in such a way to empower and unblock others, that leader becomes capable of more influence than ever.
One of the ways in which process can influence the delivery of results is through the safety and stability that it can provide. As humans, we are not thrown by difficult circumstances nearly as much as we by unanticipated circumstances. If we have a plan to attack an obstacle, then it becomes an opportunity rather than a hinderance.
As we as leaders come to embrace our role in honing and tweaking the process, we become invaluable to our organizations for our ability to influence and drive results. Our team and others can look to us for guidance on how to approach a given situation, and we can find the small points of friction that slow a team down and adjust to make improvements.
Protecting and providing work seamlessly together to enable us as leaders to perform all of our necessary functions better. As we provide results, we are better able to protect our team, our people, and our company. We can serve as a beacon to follow as well as a shield to defend our people from distraction or outside pressure. Leadership is more important than ever, and I hope that it is helpful for you as it has been for me to distill the role of a leader down to simple terms.