Regardless of your workplace title, are you called on to lead a team or manage a project? Do you find yourself unsure of exactly how to navigate relationships and organizational culture? Despite the confidence you try to project, does your inward self yearn for some user-friendly tips on leading with assurance?
A helpful guide can be found in Leadership Two Words at a Time: Simple Truths for Leading Complicated People by Bill Treasurer. He’s author of multiple leadership books (including Courage Goes to Work) and serves as “chief encouragement officer” at Giant Leap Consulting.
Rather than complicate the practice of leadership, Treasurer divides behaviors and practices into fundamental learning nuggets—each distilled into two-word headers. You might call them leadership bouillon cubes, unobtrusive at first glance but bursting with essential nourishment. The result is tried-and-true wisdom that both new and experienced leaders can immediately grasp and put to use.
If leadership is all about unlocking people’s potential to become better—and it is—Bill Treasurer has provided some simple and compelling wisdom for getting it done.
Rodger Dean Duncan: What’s the first thing someone should do when thrust into a leadership role they didn’t expect?
Bill Treasurer: First, take a deep breath. You’re going to be fine. Millions of people before you felt the same anxieties you’re feeling and landed on their feet. You will too, provided you honor the opportunity to lead others by digging in and studying up on how to do it.
Fix your focus on delivering value. Your job now will be to devote your efforts to helping each individual you’re responsible for leading to become more valuable so they can add more value to the organization, thereby ensuring that the organization will become more valuable.
How do you help people become more valuable? By equipping them with the skills and tools necessary to do a great job. By teaching them the importance of craftsmanship. By clarifying how their contributions fit into the overall mission of the organization. By setting challenging goals that activate their full engagement. By involving them in consequential decisions. By providing air cover when they make forward-falling mistakes. By giving them frequent feedback so they’re always clear about how they’re doing, and ways they can do better. By making it safe for them to give you feedback. And by shining a light on a career path worth traveling on.
Never lose sight of the fact that when you’re in a leadership role, you work for your team. Your success is hitched to how successful you help your team become.
Take solace in knowing that your leaders are giving you this opportunity because they believe in you. Put your trust in them by believing in yourself.
Duncan: In a world where the workplace has taken on multiple configurations, what best practices have you seen by leaders working with team members they rarely see in person?
Treasurer: The good news is that the technology for leading virtually has never been more user-friendly.
By now most people are versed in the use of Zoom, MS Teams, and Google Hangouts. Usually, it’s not the tech that trips up most remote leaders, it’s being disciplined about its use. Over-controlling remote leaders often suffer from the same mentality as they did back in the office—needing to see butts-in-seats for them to feel in control. So, they schedule too many virtual meetings, causing Zoom fatigue. Hands-off remote leaders do the opposite—not meeting frequently enough, causing team drift and misalignment.
What works is having a disciplined cadence regarding team and individual virtual touch points. You might, for example, have a team coordination meeting on Monday morning, and then a status meeting late Wednesday afternoon. Likewise, you could (and should) make yourself available to each individual team member by setting brief virtual check-ins. Some leaders also set aside online “office hours,” times when everybody knows that the leader is reachable and available to answer questions and provide guidance.
By the way, having a disciplined meeting cadence extends to hybrid work models too, whereby the team sometimes works-from-home and sometimes works in the office. Based on the complexities of the work being done, while also factoring in the need for team bonding, the leader needs to figure out the right percentages of time that best serve the needs of the customer, organization, and team. You might have to tinker with the time percentages for a while before getting it right.
This stuff is not new. People have been leading remote teams for since the early 2000s when call center work was exploding due to offshore outsourcing. Leaders in a lot of US consulting and communications companies started leading teams with members in Asia and South America. So, there has been a vast body of knowledge about how to do this for a long time. If you Google “Leading Remote Teams” you’ll find more than a billion results. I know. I just checked.
Duncan: At a time when so many things have been politicized—for example, the emotion-charged dialogue about “privilege” and “victimhood”—how can a leader help people form bonds of thrust, mutual respect, and collaboration?
Treasurer: I carry in my wallet six words that a mentor reminded me that every human being wants, regardless of race, religion, gender, or ethnicity. When these words are being lived, people flourish and bridges form across divides. Everyone wants to be welcomed, valued, respected, heard, understoodand supported.
The important thing is to work with the team to put some definition to these words. What, for example, does being “welcomed” mean to the leaders and their teams? What are some specific ways they currently welcome new team members? How might they create an even more welcoming environment? Put similar definition to the other words.
Remember, too, the importance of role modeling. There is no more powerful determinant of organizational culture than the behavior of leaders. Stay above the fray, take the high road, and act as the adult in the room when others are behaving childishly.
Duncan: For a variety of reasons, burnout is a growing problem in the workplace. What kind of self-care do you recommend for leaders?
Treasurer: One of my clients calls it redlining, which I define as an unsafe, unhealthy, unsustainable condition whereby a leader and/or their team are overworked and under-resourced for unreasonable amounts of time. You’re getting ready to blow a gasket!
It truly is a big problem. I knew one overworked leader who died while entertaining clients at a golf outing. He was only 45 years old.
My recommendation is to start your day more slowly. Tune up your senses. What morning sounds are you hearing? Is it windy outside? Is there a dog barking down the road? Can you smell the fresh pot of coffee brewing? You get the idea. This is a better way to start your day than listening to political angertainment on the TV or radio.
Consider some brief reflective reading, perhaps with some spiritual literature. My morning routine involves reading a paragraph of wisdom from the ancient Stoics, and then reflecting on its application in my own life. It takes less than five minutes.
You might also like the advice of Benjamin Franklin. In his autobiography, he suggests booking each day with two simple but important questions. In the morning, ask yourself, “What good shall I do this day?” In the evening, ask, “What good have I done this day?”
Duncan: How can leaders help their people avoid burnout?
Treasurer: Stay vigilant to the “less and more” signs. Burnout reveals itself when people are less engaged, less productive, or less vocal, and more temperamental or more quick-tempered.
When you see it, validate it by checking in with the person. Be caring, not accusatory. Say, “I’ve noticed that you haven’t seemed yourself lately and I wanted to check in. How are things going?” Then be quiet and give them the space to open up.
Be supportive in whatever tangible ways you can, such as shifting the workload, providing additional resources, and, yes, giving time off if needed. Ask yourself, what support would you want a leader to give you if you were close to redlining?
Duncan: “Practice humility” is one of your tips for leaders. Why does that seem so hard for some people, and what’s your advice for keeping ego in check?
Treasurer: When you become a leader, people start treating you like you’re special. It feels good when people defer to your thinking, parrot your opinions, shake their heads “yes” whenever you talk. With all that special treatment you may become hoodwinked into believing that you are, in fact, special.
Don’t get sucked in to being sucked up to. It’s dangerous to surround yourself with suck-ups. You need truthtellers who tell you things you may not want to hear but need to know. If you had broccoli stuck in your teeth at the business lunch, wouldn’t you want to know?
Never forget that regardless of how much money you make or how fancy your title, you are just a tiny speck in a vast infinite universe. Get over yourself!
Duncan: What do you see as early warning signs that a leader’s ego is becoming a problem?
Treasurer: When moving into a leadership role, do they grow or swell. Do they, for example, seek advice, ask for coaching, have their boss review their decisions, etc., or do they start acting like know-it-alls, talking about people, and whine when they don’t get their way?
More simply, do they use the word “I” more than the word “We” when talking. The Latin word “I” is “ego.”
Duncan: Trust is of course the “operating system” of every relationship. What behaviors do you see in leaders who are really good at earning, maintaining, and extending trust?
Treasurer: Honesty works, but not if taken to the point of brutality. Be candid, not intentionally obnoxious.
Delivering on commitments is crucial. It connects to integrity. Do what you say you will do. And when you’re going to miss on a commitment, flag it as early as possible.
When you get something wrong, admit it and set out on making it right. Your true colors as a leader will show themselves in how you do right by people after you’ve somehow let them down.
People also trust competence. Always be learning and improving. You can’t know everything, but you’ve got to know something … really well!
Finally, people trust things that are real. People need to know that you put on your skivvies in the morning the same way they do. Be authentic.
Duncan: What do you regard as some of the most negative and counter-productive behaviors being exhibited by prominent leaders today?
Treasurer: One word—hubris. We all cringe when we see a leader whom we have come to admire start doing unethical and self-centered things, decimating their reputation. Travis Kalanick, was fired as CEO of Uber, the company he co-founded. Elizabeth Holmes, CEO and founder of Theranos, was convicted of fraud.
History is littered with leaders who forgot the #1 rule of leadership: It’s not about YOU.
Duncan: What inspired you to become interested in the topic of leadership?
Treasurer: I was put in a leadership role and did a bad job of leading. I was 24 years old, leading a team of aerial exhibition high divers as part of the US High Diving Team. We were diving from 100-foot radio towers into small pools that were only ten feet deep.
One day after a subpar performance, I lit into the team hard. Afterward, one of the divers stayed behind and said, “Dude, you suck as a leader. Nobody wants to be treated the way you just treated us. I’ll walk if you do it again.” I was embarrassed, because I had no idea how to lead people. I was just another two-bit tyrant.
So, I picked up a leadership book which gave me good tips. I got better at leading and very interested in the topic. I decided to go to graduate school to study leadership. Thirty years later I’m grateful to the guy who had enough courage to tell me that I sucked at leading. He gave me my career!