What Followers Want From Leaders

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As we’ve discussed previously, the great leaders we might label as ‘Unicorns’ don’t operate in splendid isolation. Rather than being an omniscient force, they are often guided by a highly competent support team and benefit from effective organizational processes. When we think of Unicorn leaders in sport – Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola, Phil Jackson and Greg Popovich, for example – their coaching excellence is amplified by the great players, great executives, and great culture around them.

The Characteristics of Effective Leaders

For outstanding leaders to draw on the skills of those around them and enable themselves and others to be as effective as possible, it’s essential that they build engagement and spend time listening to understand exactly what employees need to succeed. Not only does this help to build trust and increase motivation, it also serves to put the whole organization in a position to fulfil its vision.

Carlo Ancelotti, one of the greatest soccer coaches of all-time, once said that it is not his job to motivate talented players, it’s his job not to demotivate them. Employees are more often the solution than they are the problem, but only if they are listened to and invited to contribute their experience, expertise and ideas.

In their Gallup Report-based book on engagement, Strengths Based Leadership, Tom Rath and Barry Conchie asked a simple question; What is it that followers want from leaders? The 10,000+ respondents to the survey overwhelmingly chose four basic traits that they wanted to see in their leaders; Trust, Compassion, Stability and Hope. For any leader to succeed in the long-term, it’s important that they embody those characteristics, but what exactly does that entail?

1. Trust

Trust is not only important in any leadership position, it is vital if the workforce is to remain content to be led. As Rath and Conchie wrote, “In any position of leadership, whether that be as the sports coach, team captain, sports manager, or any other field or industry professional, trust is the “do or die” foundation for leading others.

2. Compassion

The old adage that employees don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care has never been truer. Compassion, showing genuine care and concern for those you employ or coach, is what great leadership demonstrates. The result of that compassion is that employees are more likely to stay with your organization and be more productive while they are there.

3. Stability

Stability is the knowledge that leadership can be counted on in times of difficulty. As is well known, in times of uncertainty any sense of clarity is appreciated by the workforce. This characteristic relies on behavioral consistency which enables employees and/or players to feel comfortable and less uncertain in any given context.

4. Hope

Where stability is mostly concerned with the present, hope is the need to believe in a positive future. Hope gives followers something to look forward to and helps them to see a way through chaos and complexity to a better future. For an instance of leadership offering hope, there are few better examples than Bart Starr’s account of Vince Lombardi’s first team talk at the Green Bay Packers in 1959.

“‘Gentlemen’, he said. ‘We are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well that we will not catch it because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it because in the process we will catch excellence.’ He came right up on us, within a foot of us in the front row, and then he said, ‘I am not remotely interested in just being good’. We then took a break and I ran downstairs and called my wife…and all I said to her was, ‘Honey, we’re going to begin to win’. I mean, it was that obvious.”

Believing in Magic

Sometimes it helps to believe in magic, and one of the motivations for creating Unicorn leaders is to enable us to hope and strive for a better future. In fact, delivering hope and certainty where it does not exist is a key role a leader can play in driving up standards, engagement and motivation at all levels of an organization.

As we’ve said before, we should always be skeptical of the ‘Unicorn’ tag as great leaders are forged by a wide range of influences both within and beyond their control. However, in certain situations, if a leader is seen as a Unicorn in the mind of their followers, then that can have a positive impact on the organization whether the label is accurate or not.

Interested in learning more about the concept of the unicorn leader? Click here to download The Dangerous Myth of the Unicorn Leader, the latest paper from the Sportsology Research Academy.

Image: Markus Spiske/Unsplash