Are you bringing out the best in the people you work with?
Consider this scenario:
One of my employees, Jessica*, emailed me a resignation letter. She explained that she had an upcoming personal issue that was going to consume her time for the next few months. While she enjoyed her work at the company, she didn’t see an alternative to stepping down.
Jessica was a hard worker with creative ideas. Her loss was going to be felt by our team, and replacing her would take valuable time at the very moment we were trying to expand.
What would you do in this situation?
The obvious choices would be to replace Jessica immediately; compel her into staying; or squeeze as much work out of her before she was gone.
But I am going to suggest that you should do none of those things. And the best way to handle this situation has everything to do with how leadership has changed in the past few decades.
The Making of the Modern Leader
The more we study management and leadership, the more data we have to support the common-sense notion that the best leaders care about their people. They aren’t tyrants who rule with an iron will. They listen carefully, build strong relationships, and encourage open discussion.
It might seem like common sense, but the idea of the leader who is compassionate and effective represents a sea-change in management thinking. Previously, managers in all kinds of work operated like supervisors on an assembly line. One missing screw meant a faulty product, and the easiest way to make sure there were no missing screws was to fire anyone who didn’t work like a robot.
However, most of us don’t work on old-fashioned assembly lines. Being ruthlessly efficient at a single task doesn’t serve us. Our work requires creativity, connection, and clarity of mind.
This is especially true for entrepreneurs. If you are starting a business, you are constantly taking risks, looking for new resources, innovating, and improvising. Your employees are probably doing the same. The fear-based leadership of the past is going to make all of that more difficult.
Leading from the Heart
As a pastor and entrepreneur, I’ve been blessed with some pretty incredible opportunities to learn about leadership. While founding a ministry, building a million-dollar eCommerce business, and taking a leadership role at StartupCamp, I’ve seen leaders of faith and business build amazing teams.
In my experience, modern leadership is all about the heart. That doesn’t mean getting all emotional at work—though emotion is part of it. Leading from the heart means bringing the real you to the table. It requires us to treat people like people, and make decisions based on what is right, not what is convenient.
The amazing thing about this leadership style is that it makes your work more fulfilling and effective. When you’re leading with your heart, you’re building the kind of trust-based relationships that bring out the best in your team and enrich your daily life.
So what does it mean to lead with your heart, practically speaking?
How do you bring out the best in your team using the principles of modern leadership?
Here are five guiding principles I follow to help bring out the best in myself and others:
5 Guiding Principles to Being a Modern Leader
1. Make Everyone Around You Better
With every new employee, partner, or person in my life, my goal is the same from day one: make them better.
As a modern leader, this should be your mantra. Your role is to increase the capacity and confidence of the people who work with and for you.
Increasing capacity—that is, skill-set—is fairly straightforward. As leaders, we need to be consistently checking in to make sure our people have all the tools and resources they need. If additional training is needed, it should be encouraged and supported. When our people are learning, our businesses are growing.
Increasing confidence is a trickier subject. I’ll talk more about it in #2 – Create a Safe Space. The spoiler is that most mistakes are made because people are afraid. It’s the heart that gets in their way.
So how do you make the people around you better? Think of the positive qualities or skills of your people and look for opportunities to recognize or support them.
2. Create a Safe Space
As modern leaders, we need to create an environment where people can make mistakes.
You heard me right. As I mentioned earlier, so much of startup success depends on the ability to experiment. And experimentation means allowing for some amount of failure.
Just because people can make mistakes doesn’t mean they will. More often than not, people fail due to low confidence and emotional blocks. It’s impossible to be your best self when you’re worried about getting fired. The more we can remove fear from the equation, the clearer people will think and the better they will perform.
Practically speaking, this means creating low-stakes situations for employees to learn new skills and responsibilities. If people feel they have the freedom to try something new and retreat should things go poorly, they’ll approach the situation confident and primed to learn.
It also means reining in your harshest criticism—or real anger—when small mistakes are made in the normal course of work. People usually beat themselves up sufficiently without your help. Turning small failures into learning moments usually begins with reassuring the individual that everything is okay.
Of course, there is a time and a place for a sterner kind of leadership. But disciplinary actions are really only useful if an employee just doesn’t care.
3. The Person Is Not the Problem
For better or worse, many of us are wired to react negatively when we see failure. So how do you check your own counterproductive impulses and bring out your best leadership?
Start by reminding yourself that the person is not the problem. The problem is their lack of skills or confidence. They are not your enemy, and you don’t have to take their shortcoming personally.
This is not an insignificant distinction. When you separate a person’s failure from their human value, you can identify the root of the problem and find a solution, while building trust in the relationship.
Leading with the heart means treating each individual as a person first, and allowing good business outcomes to follow.
4. Treat Employees Like Volunteers (and Vice Versa)
I knew a young pastor who worked with a large group of volunteers at his ministry. He was well-loved by his volunteers for being kind, instructive, and understanding, but around his one paid employee, he was a totally different person.
When I asked the pastor about this, he responded, “I pay him! He needs to do his job.”
One of the deepest problems we face as leaders in business is that soon as money gets involved, we start treating people like machines, managing them for output and efficiency. Eventually, they break down.
But what if you thought about your employees as volunteers instead? Volunteers can’t be commanded; they can only be lead by vision-casting and inspiration. Listen to them, watch them. Try to understand them internally to help them win externally. This, it turns out, is the best way to lead anyone.
By the same token, if you do work with volunteers, it might not hurt to treat them a little more like employees. Recognize their gifts and provide them opportunities to get more involved.
5. Be Gracious to Folks on the Way Out
Employee turnover is one of the most critical junctions for testing leadership. Though it’s often taken as a hit to the company, employee turnover should be viewed more positively.
According to Liz Wiseman, author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, an ideal team is always adapting to changes, bringing on new people and fresh skills as the seasoned employees move on.
But even with the ample amounts of compassion and support, some employees may not be able to meet their job requirements. Not every gap in skills can be bridged, and unfortunately, some people do need to be let go.
When you’re leading from the heart, there’s a special way to treat people at the end of their run. And that is to love them more, give them more.
This might seem counterintuitive, since, from one perspective, you’re investing in an asset that you’re going to lose. But a person is more than an asset. And before they leave your circle, you should give them your absolute best and let that blessing come back to you (in whatever form it may take).
And this brings me back to Jessica. My team and I met her resignation with understanding and support. After a few conversations, it became clear that “the end” did not have to be the end. Jessica successfully led a search for her own interim replacement and in the process turned up a host of talented freelancers the business could tap for future projects.
Putting People Over Profit
Our founder, Dale Partridge, wrote a book called, “People Over Profit.” Those few words encapsulate much of what it means to be a modern leader. Would you be proud of yourself if you built a profitable business by trampling your own people underfoot? Would that satisfy your soul?
I’ll be honest, taking this kind of leadership approach—actually caring—will raise some eyebrows. People will try to figure you out. They’ll wonder, “What’s your end-game?”
The truth is, you shouldn’t have an end-game. You should try to make people better because you’re their boss or manager, and it will benefit your company. You should do it because you’re a human being.
As leaders, we need to get the job done. But, as with all things, there are many ways to do so. We suggest the way of compassion, empathy, and heart.