Push Them High, But Back Them Up!

The other day, I was in Rome, near the Roman Forum, listening to a beautiful piece of music, played by a street artist, a violinist. I loved the music so much and asked where it was coming from. I learnt that it was from a movie and, therefore, my first reaction was to go browsing on Netflix and watch it.

While I was watching the movie, it got me thinking for days: Leadership means different things to different people, right? But, how could we possibly measure good leadership and agree on a kind of a standard definition?

And, the more I was thinking about it, the more I realized that the movie was worth talking about at The Leadership Conference in Luxembourg where I spoke on Sept 9th, and worth an article too.

There was a man by the name of Oskar Schindler, that I assume many of you knew through the novel, or like me, through the movie starring Liam Neeson, The Schindler's List. For those who have never heard of the story, Schindler used to work for the Nazi Party for which he collected information before World War II. He was also an entrepreneur, who moved to Poland with a dream to make a fortune. So, he acquired a factory in Krakow, and then he started hiring Jews, for the only reason that Jews did almost cost nothing under the circumstances during the War. He was a leader of 1,750 workers - the size of a large organisation nowadays - and his factory was huge success.

Before I keep talking about this case, I do particularly want you to watch the trailer (below), to see those pictures, to try to imagine and feel the sadness of the circumstances at the time. There was a war, with many human beings losing their lives, when Schindler's main objective was just to make money.

Schindler was an opportunist, initially driven by profit. He was doing what most businessmen would do: pay as less as possible for employees - we call it nowadays cost optimization, and be surrounded by allies and supporters - and we call it in today's organizations "politics in the office".

However, what's really fascinating with this story is how Schindler's main purpose will totally shift from being rich and making money, to being a full dedication to his employees. This is a true story. Schindler had been bribing Nazi Officials for years, with luxury gifts, to keep his workers safe. And at some point, when things went south, with the concentration camps in Auschwitz, Schindler showed an extraordinary dose of courage when he used all the money he made to save his employees from death, paying for each name on his List to stop their deportation to the Nazi concentration camps and move them to another country.

Here is how the List went:

This guy sacrificed himself, his friendships, his money to save his people, whereas in some organizations, some so-called "leaders" (who destroyed the core definition of leadership) do sacrifice their people for bonuses and politics.

Honestly, just between you and me? Now that you know the story, and you know how Schindler put his people's best interests before his own personal interests and his fortune... if Oskar Schindler was still alive, wouldn't he be a leader you'd love to work for?

Schindler defeated the system to protect his employees. He spent years making a fortune, and then he spent that fortune to save his employees from death. And he wasn't any different from any business leader or CEO. He was also driven by a strong desire for success, he was motivated by money and power, all the things that many CEOs would be driven by today. But he had something different, a shift in mind that made of him a great leader!

Whenever we talk about leadership, we expect to hear of that magic list of characteristics that make of someone a great leader.

But, I'd like more and more people to start talking about the importance of protecting your employees rather than talking about traits like charisma in leadership.

In my opinion, leadership isn't about being charismatic. If that was the case, we would have a Walk of Fame for the best leaders in the world. But, we don't, and we won't. Very simply because what really matters and what really lasts is the impact that leaders have on people's lives.

I deeply believe that there are two dimensions which help measure good leadership: trustand courage to protect your team. And both dimensions help create a safe environment at work.

Teams need to feel perfectly safe to share their ideas, opinions, worries and frustrations with their leaders. And when I say leaders, of course I mean top management teams who have to create such a safe environment within the organization, but I'm particularly talking about team leaders, managers who interact with their teams on an almost daily basis.

Without a safe environment, you miss much more opportunities than you ever realize.

I remember a good example in an organization which was trying to launch a new product's update to boost their sales. The team was brilliant, their ideas were wonderful. The only issue was that they had an experience of not being listened to, because their managers assessed that most of the team's ideas did not fit their agenda. A short time later, a few people left the company to start their own, and they ended up implementing a product with a new feature - as they wanted to do while still employees there - and they generated massive profits.

This example shows exactly how organizations miss opportunities when they don't create a safe environment where employees feel supported, protected and heard. And it takes TRUST to create that safe environment.

How would you earn your people's trust?

It's as plain and simple as:

  • Keep your promises: do what you say, and do never commit to something if you have a 1% doubt that you may not be able to do it.

  • Act in your team's best interests: your team is able to understand what you are up to. If you do things only for yourself, your career and your promotion, just to make one client or your seniors happy, you may end up losing their trust.

  • Have a decent level of knowledge in the industry where you are working. How would your team trust you if you can't understand half of the third amount of issues they are escalating to you?

  • And most importantly, act in total fairness: my research involves a lot of discussions with team leaders, business leaders and CEOs. And I heard several times, whenever we touched on promotions: "you can't make everyone happy". Do you really think that a highly motivated, a hard-working employee would like to hear something like that? And whether you like it or not, what your employees want and how they feel is tremendously important, because they shape the foundation and the future of your business, and the old saying of "everyone can be replaced" does not really apply. Highly committed employees can only be replaced by highly committed employees, period. And highly committed employees are a rare asset. These people need to be rewarded in total fairness - make sure you don't let your reward structure and system kill their motivation. Nevertheless, I hear many team leaders say: "Yeah, but you know, in our large organizations, it's not really my call... it's complicated... it's the way it is...". No, it is YOUR responsibility to make sure that a fair and robust reward system is developed for your team. It is YOUR responsibility to go and see your top management and tell them that it is better to keep your most motivated and brilliant employees in the organization for some extra four- or five-figure salary increase, than lose the six-figure worth they take with them when they decide to leave and go somewhere else.

So, a safe environment based on trust is crucial for your leadership. But there are other critical elements that you need to have / apply to be a good leader. I totally agree that good leadership could be measured by the impact that you have on other people, and thus, how much you do inspire them, push them, empower them.

But, I would strongly argue that empowerment alone is not enough. And here, I am talking experience more than research and theories.

When I graduated, years ago, I was totally blessed to start my career working for a Sales Executive in a large organization. He was a great leader. He inspired me to be the best in every single thing I was undertaking. He empowered me to take decisions, to make changes. He gave me the green-light to implement all the ideas I had. He gave me credit on all the brilliant things we did together, even when it was half his idea, half mine, he would still give me full credit. And my big assignment in my very first year was to meet with to Prosecutor of the U.S. Government and assist with the case for two years. He took me to the most important meetings with the top management and he just let me speak. I was fulfilled, I was happy and I was successful, to the point that we were congratulated by the Prosecutor for the good impression we gave them and the work we had achieved by the time. Our KPIs shifted from dark red to green, with an increase in client satisfaction on my scope. And I have always been telling myself that I owe part of this success to him and to his leadership, because under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have done half of what I did.

I can let you imagine the amount of exposure I had locally and at the headquarters, at 24. And it's no surprise that with such exposure and success, I was in some people's radar. I did not know how to deal with politics in the office, neither did I know how to deal with anyone who would not be pleased with that success. And all I needed back then, to keep my focus and my energy, was protection. However, the system made it difficult for my manager to offer me protection.

This lesson taught me that empowerment alone is not enough, and it has taught me how much important it is to push people high, but to back them up all along the way.

And while watching The Schindler's List, Schindler's quote: "I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system" made me realize that systems make it difficult sometimes for leaders to protect their teams. And I deeply believe that it would take a huge movement where leadership and protection could go hand in hand, as I believe that protection is a critical component of good leadership. And this movement may start with an increased awareness of the real responsibilities that comes with Leadership.

As a leader, you are responsible for every single person in your team. You are responsible for developing them and making them grow. You are responsible for their well-being at work. You are responsible for guiding them. And you are responsible for creating a sound foundation of a safe environment, where your teams feel protected. This is a critical component of good leadership and sustainable outcomes.

There are several things that you can think of incoporating in your daily routine with your teams to create that safe environment. However, there is one thing that stands above everything, and Schindler did it: do what is right, simple and plain. Follow your heart and intuition, stick to your inner values and do what you think is the right thing to do, no matter what. And it's only when you do so, that you'd be surprised to discover that your team members are not only willing to work harder and be more committed at work, they would give themselves blood and sweat for you and for the organization.

For example, Jews from all over the world go and visit Schindler's grave every year. And anyone who would challenge me and ask on which ground I believe that Schindler was a good leader, I would answer and say: If you die and your employees, their children and grandchildren come every year to your grave to pray for you, then you are not just a good leader, you are a great leader!

I have always been fascinated by the effective leadership equation. 1+1, do the math, it's 2. But in effective leadership, when you manage to gather the right people around one common goal, inspire them, make them grow... then 1+1 may be equal to 100 or 1,000.

The current world does not need more successful people as much as it does need more authentic and true leaders.

The world needs true leaders who lead by example, inspire and develop other leaders. While I was giving my speech during the conference on Sept 9th, I came to think that a good leader is like a good parent. When you are a good parent, you do everything you can to create the best environment for your child to grow, and your purpose is to see your child become a better person that you are. This is what great leaders do. They create even better leaders than themselves. And when your child feels insecure or fails a class, you don't fire them or think of replacing them, you coach them and you help them feel safe.

Good leadership is creating the right circumstances for employees to feel protected and safe to take initiatives and be successful, without colleagues, management and processes holding them back or pushing them to go somewhere else.

And you? What do you think about trust and protection in leadership? Please leave me your thoughts and feedback in comments, and feel free to share this article.

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