Discovering the Essence of Leadership

Discovering the Essence of Leadership

When people think of leadership, they often imagine a shining star—this kind of leader is a team of one. In truth, authentic leadership involves relationships where the leader takes cues from employees. This kind of leader is anyone who looks to the people around them and considers ways to make their jobs easier.

Ask Fuel First answers a question to better understand leadership: How can I create effective and meaningful relationships with my employees?

The Experimental Leader

When Jim Fedio, Director of Professional Development at Fuel Medical, talks about leadership skills, he always tells the story of his first leadership role. After graduating from college, Jim worked as an entry-level claims processor for an insurance company. There were hundreds of employees divided into 30 departments, each specializing in processing a different type of health insurance claim. After several months, he felt like he still had no idea what he was doing.

To his surprise, Jim’s manager asked if he would be interested in supervising one of the claims units. He remembered thinking that he must be doing something right if they wanted to promote him—and excitedly accepted the job. That excitement, however, was short-lived.

Jim’s promotion was given to him not because he was good at his job, applied for the role or was the best person to be in charge. This leadership role was given to him because he was the most likely NOT to succeed. He was given a department of 15 part-time college students working the swing shift that was set up as an experiment. 

And it was failing.

Error rates were out of control, production levels were not even close to meeting expectations, and the department cost the company a lot of money. Jim had no idea that this department had so many issues when he took the promotion. He only found this out many years later when a friend higher up in the company told him that the department was slated to be shut down. For political reasons, they couldn’t close it. Instead, they hired someone inept to run the “toxic” department into the ground. That someone was Jim.

It didn’t take Jim long to figure out that the main problem was the people on the team. They were bright and capable but didn’t care about the job—it was simply a paycheck. They were doing just enough to get by and not get fired. They had no teamwork, no motivation and not a lot of respect for their new supervisor. That’s when Jim went out and bought his first book on leadership, The One Minute Manager.

One of the greatest lessons he learned from that book was to listen to employees. So, he applied this in his new role. When an employee approached him with an issue, he would listen to their concerns and ask questions. The first fundamental question he asked was: “How would you handle this situation?” The employees in the toxic department were taken aback because no one had ever asked their opinion before. By asking this question, Jim heard their concerns and showed them he was a partner in the department’s success. This approach to leadership was diametrically opposite to the previous supervisor’s style of direction and micromanaging.

The “toxic” department now had a leader who was part of the team. The employees didn’t work for Jim; they worked with him. This simple change made a huge difference. The employees became invested in the outcome of their work because they felt valued. After a year of hard work, that department shed its “toxic” title and became one of the most productive departments in the entire organization. And Jim has been on the leadership train ever since.

What’s the Difference Between a Manager and a Leader?

Many leadership workshops start by debating the difference between managers and leaders. They ask if you are a manager or a leader. The truth is that you do both. Demonstrating that you are a good manager is probably how you got into your leadership role. You’re good at what you do. You’re good at managing the following:

  • Time or Resources: You know how much you have, understand the constraints and leverage them in the best way possible.
  • Systems or Processes: You make quick and effective decisions based on data and analysis.
  • Projects Assigned to You: You build a plan and follow it.

In your role as a lead, supervisor or manager, you are STILL going to be measured on how well YOU execute all those things. That won’t change. But as a leader, you are now also responsible for other humans in this process. And as soon as you insert humans into any one of those situations, the dynamic changes.

Your Evolving Leadership Skills

You’re not just dealing with people. You’re dealing with personalities, diversity and differences of opinion, all of which are great things. At times, though, that can make managing a process more challenging, like the “toxic” department that wasn’t motivated. And then things change when you think you have it figured out, such as Jim’s solution of asking questions. However, the processes change, you experience staff turnover or you have more work than your team can handle, and you’re back to square one.

If you plan to stay in leadership, you must evolve. This goes for those who’ve been a leader for years and those who are new to the role. Very few people who are promoted into leadership roles can follow their intuition and become outstanding leaders right away. It takes time and patience. Great leaders learn that leadership is a mindset—they continually grow with their employees and organization. When you think about a great leader you’ve worked with, you can probably identify some behaviors you can emulate. These behaviors begin with the proper mindset, where relationships make a world of difference to both the leader and the employees.

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