You are not a leader because of your job title. Being a leader means you have followers. Voluntary followers.
Force is not leadership, command is not leadership, rewards and punishments are not leadership. Threats are certainly not leadership. Just because people report to you, you are not a leader.
Following a leader is a choice someone makes internally or externally. If you don’t have followers that freely choose you, that love to work with you, you are not a leader.
What would your team do if they could have the choice of reporting to anyone else? Would they choose you?
If they would not choose you, you are not their work leader. You are their work controller. Their work leader is someone or something else that they would prefer to follow more than you.
Since following is a choice, is there anything you can do to help your people choose you? Yes, yes there is. According to science. Run this list through your own experience.
7 Reasons Why Someone Would Choose to Follow You
You Trust Them Completely. Believe in them to do a fantastic job, even if you know they will make mistakes first. Believe they will make the best decisions, and create something great, even if it takes a few tries. Believe they will be able to find the answer, even if they get stuck. Treat them like you really believe this. Help them feel psychologically safe by having them speak more than you. Prove to them they can say anything they want by your reactions. Finally, one part of trust is allowing emotions to happen at work. It does not mean you become a therapist, this means that you don’t suppress emotion. It means you are mature enough and open enough to allow emotions to be present without being afraid of them, without knee-jerk reactions to them, and without them being destructive. If you don’t know how to do this, get some training in emotional intelligence, which predicts 80% of your success. We don’t trust others that pretend to be robots. We don't trust others who never ask us how we really feel and let us express that. A leader that makes us feel completely trusted is someone we rarely ever want to leave.
You Let Them Play. Creativity happens through play. By definition, play is an activity that happens without the need for a specific result. No specific result or outcome. When was the last time you did something like that at work? Most workplaces are the antithesis of play, everything must have a result. This is an energy and leadership killer. Humans need play and free creativity. Let your team play and they will love you for it. You will benefit. Play is how we form social bonds and get truly new ideas. Play enhances your team's performance. Letting this happen shows that you care about people and creativity as much as you do about numbers, and that inspires them to follow you. Innovation doesn’t come from brainstorms or strict processes. It comes from play.
You Give Them Power. If you try to hold the power as a leader you are squeezing the energy out of the system. Everyone has their own energy source and will that they need to exercise. When you make the space for other people to decide how they get to do their work, you unlock massive energy in the system. So give people as much autonomy as physically possible. Do everything you can to let them make their own decisions and take on their own responsibility. Delegate important work to them and let them do it their way. Entertain their suggestions for change and make those changes happen whenever possible. Give them the power to control their daily work life as much as possible and they will want to be in daily work with you.
You Love Them. Leadership is really a practice of love. All of us crave attention, support, and appreciation from those we look up to. How often are you genuinely and uniquely appreciating your people? There is a proven ratio of feedback that creates safety and freedom for people at work. That ratio is at least 4 points of positive feedback for every 1 negative point of feedback. Negative feedback carries more psychological weight than positive feedback. So balanced feedback is not 1:1. Balanced feedback is at least 4 positive to 1 negative. Are you hitting that ratio? Can you beat that ratio? It’s so easy if you are willing to try. Every day your people are doing great work, or asking great questions, or being supportive to each other, or showing up with a smile, and all of those can be turned into genuine appreciation by you. When was the last time you told someone on your team, “I am so glad you are on my team.”? So simple, so helpful, so motivating.
You Tell The Whole Truth. Many “leaders” hide things from their employees, and they convince themselves their intentions are good in doing so. They think they are saving employees from unnecessary stress, or that too much information would distract employees from their jobs, or that the employees will panic or not handle the information well. In my view, this is bullcrap. Hiding information is just fear. Hiding information treats people like children, and people can feel when this is happening. Then when the information eventually comes out it’s obvious it was hidden, creating even more negative feelings in employees than telling the truth would have caused in the first place. Hiding information is just a child’s game of control. Are we really going to play that game? Then we aren’t leaders. One of the most common ways leaders withhold the truth is with their own feelings. Leaders are still so hesitant to say, “I don’t know the answer” or “I’m really worried about this” or “I’m not sure how to handle this situation” or “This is keeping me up at night”. You think you are helping your team but you are sucking the energy out of them. They can feel when you are uneasy and when you don’t talk about this they sense they are being lied to or information is being hidden. On the other hand, if you share all the information you have, they will see you trust them and value them. If you share your challenges and ask for help, you will see all kinds of energy blossom in your team as they rise to help you.
You Follow Your Heart. Most of us can’t stand leaders that just repeat the company line. Most of us don’t feel the fun or energy working for a leader that only cares about numbers and profits over people. Most of us are bored and drained by leaders that never take any risks and always do the “practical” or “logical” choice. Guess what, humans are not rational beings. Nothing you choose is actually rational, but that argument will have to come another day. For now, think about the people that really inspire you, do any of them sit quietly, repeat the company line, and always do the practical decisions? The people that inspire us are the ones that are full of life and living from their heart. They are expressing their joy, their desires, their values, and they are making choices based on their dreams. They don’t always do things that make sense, they do things for love. They are following a guidance inside them, their heartfelt intuition. It sometimes takes them on twists or turns, ups and downs, but it’s always an entertaining ride. I want to follow that person. If you don’t know what is in your heart or how to follow it, start journaling about it.
You Share Your Purpose. Certain things in this world mean more to you than other things. There are certain types of people you would love to be able to help. There are certain issues that seem to really get you upset or that really get you energized. There are certain topics you've always found fascinating since you were a kid. There are certain things in this world that just touch you on a deep level. There are certain values that you care about the most. What is it that you really care about? What is it that you want to contribute to humanity with your life? Answer these questions. If you don't know, say, I don't know and just keep asking. You don't have to know, you just have to keep looking. Here is an exercise to start: when you die, 3 words will be written on your tombstone. These 3 words are the 3 ideas or concepts that you proved with your life. Your life showed the full nature of these 3 words in the world. What are those words for you? These are your starting point for what you really care about. Are you actually using these things to run your team? When you have any answer to any of these questions, even if you are not sure, share it with your team. Connect your work and the work of being a leader to your greater purpose, as best as you understand it. Invite your team members to share their greater purposes. We love to follow people that help us understand, express, and work toward what we care about most in the world. We love to follow people that helps us feel the meaning of our lives.
You have become a leader when you realize your work responsibilities are not about the strategy, the tasks, the projects, or the to-do lists. You have become a leader when you realize that your responsibility is people.
Leadership means taking care of people at such a high level that they take care of everything else better than they could do without you. That's why they follow you.
If you want support on this path, these are the mindsets we teach and coach in our program Digital Chieftain.