At its most basic, effective leadership consists of two key components. One of them is the human element – that’s the part where you’re showing and telling the people who work for you that you’re glad they’re there. This is the piece of leadership that gets the most attention, because there are an endless number of things you can do on the human side. Having an open door policy, being an active listener, praising people for their accomplishments, offering intelligent constructive feedback, providing opportunities for teambuilding and personal growth – I could continue, but I’d rather this article not end up being 48,000 words. The vast majority of leadership education is centered on the human side of leadership.
In fact, so much leadership education focuses on the human element that the other key component of leadership is often overlooked – the mission element. This is the part of effective leadership where you’re getting people to buy into what your business is trying to accomplish. It’s the ‘why’ of work, the reason the job we do exists beyond its capacity to earn us money. Because most of us can find any number of jobs that would pay us more or less what we’re making now, but finding a job with a mission that animates us is much more difficult.
Both of these facets of leadership are critical if we want engaged workers. I won’t bore you with all the research behind this (although I will bore you with a little bit of it if you ever hear me do my Unleash Your Inner Tyrant! keynote), but basically is boils down to this: it’s all but impossible to be excited about our job if we think people like us but the work we do is pointless, and it’s equally difficult to be engaged if we think our job is incredibly meaningful but our leadership would happily replace us with a robot if they could.
The human element of leadership gets the most attention, I think, because there are so many different ways to do it. That’s where there are so many books and TED talks about this element of leadership.
When it comes to the mission side, however, there’s really only one thing to say. That entire half of leadership can be effectively summarized in a single sentence, which is why I consider it to be the most important sentence in leadership:
Make it your mission to make your mission known, and to tell everyone you work with how they personally contribute to its successful execution.
That right there is half of your challenge as a leader. What do you stand for? Why do you come to work besides the need to get paid? What important benefit does your business provide? What metrics, beyond the financial, are you using to gauge success or failure? How would your business suffer if the employee you’re having a conversation with right now decided to leave? These are the kinds of questions you’ll need to be able to answer in order to develop a strong and infectious sense of mission.
I speak to all kinds of companies and associations worried that theirs is not a particularly “sexy” industry, and therefore not likely to attract new employees. That fear, however, misses the whole point of mission leadership. If your mission is compelling, you can articulate it clearly, and you can explain how everyone helps turn that mission into a reality, people will come. Enough money can persuade people to do something pointless or unpleasant for quite a long time. And of course some people are only motivated by money and the power and prestige it can afford them. But where the financial incentives are even remotely comparable, people will choose a meaningful career over an empty one every day of the week.