In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, airlines in the US saw a steep drop in business as many individuals and organizations avoided flying. Like their competitors, management at Southwest Airlines, led by Herb Kelleher, faced tough questions: “How do we reduce our costs by 40% so we can stay in business? People are not flying; what are our options?” Southwest’s management included employees as part of the team crafting an answer; they made the required expense cuts with the team’s input without laying off any employees. Not only did they survive, they thrived when people began to fly again. Southwest came out of the doldrums faster and better than any other airline. In fact, research by Kim Cameron, David Whetten, Jody Hoffer Gittell, and others shows that there is a direct correlation to team input, or ownership in cost reductions, and the downturn recovery. Southwest remains in business today, although several of their competitors from 2001 went out of business or were absorbed by other airlines. Kelleher understood that caring about, and caring for, your people is part of the recipe for sustainable profitability.
The prototype we have come to accept of the leader as someone who must be hard-driving and charismatic is incorrect. The Foundation of Winning components for sustainable success are the same for the team leaders as they are for each of the employees of the organization: Guiding Principles of Deep Caring and Mutual Trust, with a Purpose to serve others are not optional.
Great leaders who succeed over time build trusting and caring relationships, with team members who will go the extra mile for the team. While great leaders can come from a vast spectrum of personality types, there is a triad of traits the best possess and a set of practices they engage in.
The Best Leaders Share These Traits
Humility – Listen, Be Vulnerable
Being humble and showing our vulnerability is an effective way to build trust. The best leaders share that they are responsible for leading the team, but openly acknowledge that they cannot do it alone.
Do I let my team see my vulnerability?
Positivity – Celebrate, Energize, Invigorate
Research has shown that when the ratio of positive to negative comments is greater than 3:1, productivity and revenues go up. Using a 5:1 ratio of positivity to negativity is a good practice as you work with your team, your family, your community, and yourself. Be good to yourself so you can be good to others.
Is my ratio of my positive comments/compliments to criticisms/questions higher than 3:1?
Leaders reveal who they are most strikingly in how they react under pressure. Be true to who you are, and apologize if you ever violate one of the team’s Guiding Principles. The admission of being out of bounds will reap trust and respect, given you demonstrate that you are learning.
Am I authentic in sharing who I am?
Positive Practices of Great Leaders
Seek to Learn from those Closest to the Frontline
Those closest to the customer/client/patient/product deal with the challenges that will determine the sustainability of your organization. Listening to the input of your frontline team members builds their commitment, responsibility, and ownership, and the team will grow more powerful, responsive, and proactive.
How well do I value and respect the input of frontline team members?
The heart of any organization is its people. Assets like products, buildings, equipment, or intellectual property will change because of the team members’ actions. It is the investment in people that provides sustainable returns.
How does my team know I love them for what they do for our each other and our team?
Delegate for Growth
Leaders are responsible for moving the organization toward the Shared Vision, and often that means looking at the organization from a larger perspective. Many of our clients use the term “I am caught in the weeds.” As a result, they are not able to see where they are taking the organization because of the little daily problems they are addressing.
Are there responsibilities that I can delegate, freeing time for me to check our organizational compass?
Successful teams are built when individuals make meaningful contributions to the Purpose of the organization, when they feel like owners. Asking each team member for their input on improving the organization creates several building blocks for a sustainable future, including employees who can think for themselves and drive initiatives to conclusion.
How open am I to critical input from others, including from those further down the ranks?
Be Open to the Heretics
The larger an organization, the more reinforcing systems are installed to keep it stable, but we grow by trying things in new ways, not by doing things the same way all the time. It is the heretics who provide growth opportunities for organizations, who lead transformational change, rather than those who never question why. Heretics may surface a more effective, efficient, and fun path for the journey to your shared Vision.
Am I open to those who may look like heretics at first?
Close the Performance Gap
The “Closing the Performance Gap” diagram in Blog post 5.4 demonstrates the gap between current performance and 100% peak performance; it is the responsibility of leadership to close it.
What are the performance gaps of my direct reports, and do we have a plan for strategic growth initiatives to close them?
For those new to this series . . .
This blog is for leaders who desire to capitalize upon natural strengths to realize individual and organizational greatness. We share insights from an upcoming book on The Foundation of Winning (FOW), the template we have developed to help our clients achieve their personal and organizational potential.
I have been privileged to spend 42 years in the Team Building business, including 21 years at University of Michigan Athletics. For the first 11 years of my tenure at U-M Athletics, I worked with Football Coach Bo Schembechler, one of our nation’s most exemplary leaders and team builders. My work has revealed there is much more to sustainable greatness than talent. Being a systems engineer, I was fascinated by the science behind what made sustainable greatness possible. There are many great leaders who possess the talents Bo embodied; because of my life experiences with Bo, he may be referenced more than others.