The value of ‘leading side by side’

The value of ‘leading side by side’

Jeffrey C. McDermott
President/CEO
The Center for the Performing Arts
The Great American Songbook Foundation

Though I’ve spent most of my professional life as a courtroom litigator, I enjoyed the management and leadership opportunities that arose as I grew into the role of executive partner at my law firm. I am especially grateful for those experiences now that my career path has taken a surprise turn, placing me at the helm of two nonprofit organizations with over 40 full-time employees and hundreds of volunteers.

To be sure, self-confidence and decisiveness are key qualities for any leader, but in my own experience, sustainable organizational success hinges on qualities that are not sufficiently valued in today’s marketplace: honesty and integrity, of course, but also collegiality, openness, reciprocity and humility.

People won’t follow you simply because you carry a title or air of authority. For them to buy into your vision and go the extra mile for the organization, you must build a relationship of mutual respect and trust. It’s not quite “leading from behind” – more like “leading side by side.” I’ll give you some examples.

First, truly value your employees as colleagues. Celebrate their collective and individual successes. Dish out praise frequently and publicly. Provide criticism constructively and privately.

Don’t cling to petty notions of rank that create barriers between people. Communicate face to face or by phone rather than email. Meet with employees at their own workstations rather than summoning them to yours. Meetings are more collaborative and productive when the boss doesn’t sit at the head of the table.

Don’t micromanage. Hire good people who know what they are doing, and then let them do their jobs. At the same time, it is important to learn about their positions and responsibilities. It’s all but impossible to support and lead people if you don’t know what they do.

Exemplify the qualities you want to see in your organization. Arrive early and leave late. Let people know you expect them to work hard, but no harder than you. And be true to your word – follow through and do what you say you are going to do. Don’t overpromise, but always try to overdeliver.

Be visible. Get out of your office. Walk around during the day and say hello to people. Ask them about their lives.

Attend social events with employees and colleagues, and don’t always congregate with your direct peers. Get out of your comfort zone and socialize with those you don’t see as often. This helps to break down the silos that limit collaboration and creativity.

Finally, I believe strongly in the idea that there is no limit to the success we can achieve as long as nobody cares who gets the credit. The statement has been attributed to many people, from Ronald Reagan to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it remains one of my favorites, and a plaque bearing that line hangs on my office wall.

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