Take a minute and visualize what you believe leadership would look like in a photo or a painting? Does it look like the famous painting by Caleb Bingham titled Washington Crossing the Delaware of President George Washington sitting astride his trusty white horse in the front of the boat on Christmas Day, 1776? This painting shows a rendering of what it may have looked like as he led the Continental Army across the icy Delaware River in a surprised defeat of the Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey.
Does it look more like a portrait of a leader thoughtfully looking off in the distance, perhaps holding a pair of reading glasses, or with a book in their hands? Whatever your image of a leader, I would suggest that those images are much more romantic in nature than a realistic look at what leadership actually includes.
The reason, I believe this is the case because when we think of leadership we tend to think more of the romantic images than the real life work that true leadership entails. You may be thinking, what difference does it make how I visualize leadership? What impact does this have on how to lead within my sphere of influence?
This is exactly how many leaders think, often we focus on the day to day work of leadership and forget the importance of the image we are portraying as we work. This is very easy to do because the endless tasks on my to-do list seems to take over a day leaving me with little time to visualize and spend time thinking about how to be most effective in my position. It is, however, very important that we don’t spend so much time managing, that we forget the other important parts of leading my organization.
One very important part of leadership is the culture we are providing with our organizations. What story are we telling and why does that matter?
Each of us is telling a story
With every decision we make, we are telling our story to those around us, to our employees, to our clients, and everyone who is a stakeholder or potential stakeholder to our organization. We are being judged in everything we do, both personally and organizationally. Business certainly depends on the product or service we provide, however almost every product or service we provide is also provided by several other organizations.
Why would a client choose us over others? The answer depends, in large part, on the culture we build within our organizations. In short, what story are we telling? The bad news is that we don’t get to choose whether or not we tell a story, we only get to choose what story we tell. If we are not intentional about our story, our story will be told by others who we may not trust to tell our story, especially when we realize the direct correlation between telling a positive story and the amount of business we generate. I hope you are convinced of the importance of telling your story.
The bad news is that we don’t get to choose whether or not we tell a story, we only get to choose what story we tell.
The next step is to determine how to tell our story in the most positive way possible. While I don’t have room to speak of every part of building a winning culture, I would like to use the remaining space I have to speak of organizational artifacts.
Show what matters most
Organizational artifacts are the tangible things within your organization that people use to make judgement calls about you and your business. Things as simple as what we choose to put on our walls indicate what we value. How we choose to speak to each other indicates the value we place on others. If an office is organized or cluttered, it indicates how a client may feel about the importance an organization places on attention to detail.
How we choose to dress indicates how we view ourselves. I would invite you to take a look around your home, is it clean or dirty, organized or cluttered? What do you have on your walls and what does this say about you and those you live with? What perceptions would a stranger have of you and your lifestyle if they were to walk into your home?
Now take this same exercise to your workspace. Your workspace could be a virtual workspace, or it could be a brick and mortar building. In either case, your perspective clients are making judgment calls based on what they see, hear, and feel while they are in your space. This has a direct correlation to whether or not they feel their business is ‘safe’ with you.
A cleaner locker room
I was at a dinner where a nationally prominent college football coach, who had won several titles in spite of having a significantly smaller budget than his competitors, was asked to what he attributed his success. He replied, every member on his team had to be committed to excellence. His janitor had to clean their locker room better than any other janitor in the conference. There was some laughing among the crowd and he explained this was so important because if all other things we equal and a recruit was choosing between two schools and one had a clean locker room and one did not, which team gets the recruit?
In your organization, what ‘locker room’ needs cleaning? Maybe it a cultural change as simple as what is on the wall, or how easy it is to navigate your virtual space, or perhaps it is as deep as the real meaning and value or your organization. Whatever area needs attention, feed that area with your time, and watch your success skyrocket.
How do we build a winning culture?
Now that we know what to pay attention to, the question is how do we most quickly change a culture? While there may not be a ‘quick fix’ to organizational cultural issues, and the manner to change a culture could fill up an entire article itself, the fastest way I know is to simply make the cultural expectations known with all stakeholders, and then simply for the leader to model those expectations. The old adage of what you are doing is yelling so loudly in my ear, I can’t hear what you are saying, is perhaps more true in this instance that in many others. Leading by example is the best way to model accepted norms as well as making them well known and taking advantage of every opportunity to reinforce the cultural expectations.
Finally, let’s go back to the image of leadership. Does the image you have of leadership fit within how you act as a leader in your organization? Do you embody that image and if so in what ways? In what areas can you improve?
One of my favorite images of leadership is the photo at the top of this article. I love it because to me it shows where a leader should physically be in relation to their followers, and it demonstrates the really hard work that leaders need to take on in order to really make a difference. It is certainly not easy to build a winning culture; it is an investment in time. A winning culture begins with the leader and certainly is worth the investment if your desire is to have a successful organization.
Written by: Kedrick R. Wills, M.T.D.
Founder of KLG Leadership Group