Winning hearts and minds in times of change 10 ways inspiring leaders create impact

We will lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. — Joe Biden

Transition has been very much in the news in recent weeks, from the inauguration of Joe Biden as US President, to Britain officially leaving the European Union and, in business, Jeff Bezos’ decision to hand over the reins as CEO of Amazon.

Times of transition can take people into the unknown, often triggering emotional reactions and resistance. To win the hearts and minds of people, particularly those who may have opposing views, successful leaders need to show dignity, integrity and openness.

Leaders who are self-aware, and genuine, are seen as authentic. They lead with their minds, but also with their hearts and their words have the power to move you. A fine example of this was Amanda Gorman, the US Youth Poet Laureate who spoke at the inauguration with great passion and grace that connected with people.

This kind of connection is essential to bringing people with you. Investing time to understand what people need and desire — especially your critics — will make them feel known and ready to listen. One of my clients, the MD of a property development business had developed a restructuring plan that he knew would mean financial security for the business and was coming up against resistance from his partners. He recognised that he had been too data, not people, driven in their discussions — focusing on rationally explaining the facts that would make his plan work. He agreed to ‘dump the data’ and tell his partners the story or the ‘why’ behind it — rather like a politician or a poet. He also took the time to ask them about their needs and understand their ‘why’ so they could see how their aspirations related to the future he envisaged. As a result, they were able to find common ground and his partners agreed to join him on his journey.

Do you want to become a true leader who can guide others towards realising their own potential? Here are some insights to help you make a difference.

1. Show integrity

Integrity means being honest and sticking to your principles, especially when the stakes are high. I was impressed by the sensitivity Joe Biden showed towards Donald Trump, and so to his political opponents, by acknowledging the generosity and confidentiality of a letter left for him at the White House by his predecessor. Given the tensions of the lead-up to his handover, that was impressive and demonstrated his character.

2. Let people see the real you

People make decisions with their emotions and letting people know who you really are will help them engage with you, especially when you join an organisation as a leader or take on a new team. I encourage leaders to invest time early on having one-on-one conversations so people can really understand who you are and what you stand for. Being interviewed in front of the company, with questions that reveal your character and values, not just your experience, can take this even further. It allows teams to see who their new leader really is, as a person as well as a professional, and is a great time investment, deepening understanding that might otherwise take months to build.

3. Give people choices

Make sure people choose to follow you because they have been able to consider different options. Offering more than one possibility helps them feel in control and encourages them to follow your lead. Take an honest look at the pros and cons of the plans you want them to engage with, even in areas you feel passionate about, as over-selling your preference will not build credibility. Using inclusive language will also help, as ideas that people think of themselves tend to be more significant to them. If you want them to buy into yours, make it theirs: instead of talking about your great idea, try saying, “It was your perceptive comment last week that made me realise we need to do this…”

4. Be curious

The stronger you feel about a particular view, the more curious you need to be about opposing views and the people who hold them. If you ask them to explain why they hold their view, two things will happen: they will feel heard, and you will have a greater understanding of their view and why they hold it. Then two more things may happen: with your greater insight, the way you respond will often change and, because you listened to them, they will be more inclined to listen to you.

5. Embrace diverse thinking

When leaders create diverse teams there is a breadth and power to its thinking. Companies can leverage that power by inviting people who are not involved in their business into a discussion, as they will ask unexpected questions that take the subject to a new and creative place.

I recall listening to the Leadership Team at Google explaining how they invite artists such as concert pianists and ballerinas into brainstorming sessions to open up to new perspectives. When I mentioned this to a client recently, he was curious to explore it to see if it could help break the deadlock on lengthy negotiations for a major property deal. He sought out the advice of a customer who had significant business acumen in a different field and who operated in a different country. Their discussions gave him productive insights and sparked several ideas that may well end the deadlocked negotiation.

6. Harness the power of questions

The challenge of experience and having all the answers is that you can close down conversations and build dependency. One of my clients, who was known for being a problem solver, saw giving answers as part of her leadership role, so much so that her team began to accept them as the only solution. She became frustrated that they were not challenging her or showing initiative, without seeing that she herself had built dependency and stifled growth. When she recognised this, she decided to make questioning a significant part of her leadership style, preparing for meetings by thinking about powerful questions that could generate ideas and how she could explore them with her team. Not only did this make a difference to the culture and development of her team, she practiced this at home and found it helped her engage in more meaningful conversations with her children.

7. Go the extra mile

The words ‘thank you’ and ‘good job’ are important but just saying them is not enough. A client who uses them frequently was shocked to learn that his team felt he didn’t show his appreciation. Recognising a person’s qualities and the specific way they have made a difference will give praise real impact and leave them feeling that their contribution counts.

Good leaders can take this even further. During a leadership program, one delegate shared that he was demotivated because he felt that he didn’t have a good relationship with his line manager, who he felt didn’t know or recognise him. But some time later, that changed. His company always invited employees’ partners to the annual Christmas party, but that year his wife was unable to attend through illness. His line manager reached out and sent her a handwritten note, saying that she would be missed at the party, but above all thanking her for her incredible support for her husband and the way that had helped him become a key asset to the business. This generous act both showed empathy and gratitude to his team members’s wife and recognised the team member for his hard work and importance to the company. It was a gesture which inspired great loyalty towards him from that day on.

8. Be gracious in defeat

Leaders like to win, but as recent events have shown, refusing to accept defeat can lead to a loss of credibility and have far-reaching consequences. In society and especially in business, it is important to encourage and embrace losses as experiences that we can learn from, creating a culture where risk-taking is seen as leading to change, growth and innovation — and where you can lose without being considered a “loser”.

9. Walk your talk

Leaders create cultures and their personal values and behaviours will impact the culture of an organisation far more than posters on a wall. In a recent conversation, a leader gave me feedback on a recently promoted member of his senior team, emphasising that he would have a great future if only he could learn to listen more and not push his ideas through like a sledgehammer. Yet I was struck by how little he himself listened during our conversation, interrupting and dismissing certain questions, in a way that negated the very value he wanted to develop in others. Leaders need to have self-awareness but are often challenged less when they get to a senior position — a reason why many have an executive coach who can hold a mirror up to behaviours they may not be aware of and leverage untapped strengths.

10. Don’t manage, lead!

The higher you go up the business ladder, the more critical your ability to influence becomes, yet people often get promoted to leadership positions without knowing how to communicate an inspiring strategic vision. They tend to focus on what they know — tactics, not strategy — and as a result, become stuck in micromanagement. One of my clients is young and highly talented, but has a strong need for speed and control, often creating discomfort in the people who report to him. He is becoming more aware of the difference between managing and leading — for example breaking the complex down to the simple rather than leading people from the simple to the complex, or doing the right things instead of just doing things right. These and other insights into how managers and leaders differ are explored by Dianna Booher, in her book ‘Communicate Like a Leader’.

If you have been recently promoted or want to inspire your teams in today’s changing times, why not consider one of our programmes for leaders. Begin the conversation by emailing me at info@potentialplus-int.com

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Global leadership coach and consultant. I work on the principle that greatness exists in everyone. Learn more and connect at www.potentialplusinternational.com