Recipes for Effective Leadership - Don't Look Too Far!

16/03/2015 10:05 GMT | Updated 16/05/2015 10:59 BST

Leadership seems to be on everybody's mind. On Amazon, the term generates well over a hundred thousand results. Apparently, many experts have something to say about it, have an important opinion, or know how to do it. At the same time, the hunger for knowledge in this domain seems to be just as big as unappeased.

Many approaches are rather academic, explaining leadership through methods, techniques and instruments that just need to be applied in order to lead people effectively. This can work but often falls short.

The good news is, we don't really have to look that far in our quest for effective leadership. There are two basic principles by which leadership almost happens by itself - or that already get you half way there at least:

1. Behave the way you expect your team to behave

Nobel Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer once said:

"Example is not the most effective way of leading - it is the only one."
And Mahatma Ghandi once put it very astutely by saying:
"You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
This doesn't come out of the blue.

One question I like to discuss with the participants of my leadership programs is: Can you not be an example as a leader? Often the first spontaneous answer is "yes" - actually meaning that you can be a bad example, of course. This leads us to a concurrence with Paul Watzlawick's renowned basic rule of communication: " You cannot not communicate". The same is true for leadership: "You cannot not be an example."

The one who leads is always an example. A good one or a bad one. Whether you are conscious of it or not is irrelevant. You are under constant observation and taken as a point of reference by your team. Oh, and by the way: much more by what you do than by what you say. Hence, you better be aware of your behavior as a leader and examine whether it does in fact represent what you expect from your team.

It is very similar to educating children: If you expect your children to tidy up their rooms and keep them orderly, while you are living in chaos yourself and have to search for your keys for half an hour every time you want to leave the house, you are in fact acting as an example. Just probably not in the best possible sense of the word. Or as the famous German comedian Karl Valentin once said:

"You don't need to educate your children, they will copy you anyway."
Which leads us to the second principle:

2. First, lead yourself

Effective leadership starts with effective self-leadership. Or can you imagine a really successful leader who expects her team members to be punctual while she is late for meetings or overruns them on a regular basis?

In fact, effective self-leadership is one of the major success factors for entrepreneurs, leaders and employees at all levels. Simply put, it is the ability to influence the "self" in such a way that you achieve your goals. It starts with little things such as the delayed reward that was examined at Stanford University in the late 1960s and early 70s with the famous Marshmallow Test.

For the test, children around the age of four were presented a marshmallow or another object of desire in 1:1 sessions. The person running the test told the child that he would leave the room for some time and that the child was allowed to eat the marshmallow. However, if the child was to wait for the person to come back, it would receive two marshmallows instead.

After-studies showed that those children who were able to delay the reward, later turned out to be more educationally and socially competent, were able to better cope with frustration and stress and showed higher levels of performance due to this form of self-discipline. In our fast moving society with its strong tendency for instant gratification, this is certainly interesting food for thought.

Other areas of self-leadership are the level of self-awareness in the sense of mindfully being aware of oneself, knowing one's strengths and limitations and last but not least a certain level of humility. Humility in this context means to adopt a rational and preferably objective emotional attitude (Erich Fromm) that, e.g. would allow for a team member to have more knowledge or better skills than the leader or that would allow the leader to openly admit mistakes.

Specifically this last aspect seems to be particularly difficult for many - and mostly for male - leaders, as it is often perceived as a sign of weakness by them, which is to be avoided at all costs. Interestingly enough, this fear is in strong contrast to the actual impact that such a behavior has on the team. Experience shows that by admitting mistakes, a leader is perceived as human and that as a consequence, acceptance, credibility and respect from the team will actually increase rather than decrease.

Obviously, every leader needs to practically experience this effect in order to gain certainty. For this to happen, it takes a conscious step out of the comfort zone, which in turn requires another important quality of self-leadership: courage.

Exchanging thoughts with an experienced coach on a regular basis can be an important factor for that process. Having such a sparring partner is far from being a sign of weakness nowadays, but rather a sign of professionalism and the ability to reflect.