That kind of selflessness engenders trust, which is the foundation of leadership. When one gains the trust of co-workers, teammates, students or individuals, while that person may not have a formal title, they become known as a confidant, mentor or even a rock.
Three core traits/actions I believe build trust and allow one to lead from the middle include:
- Providing honest feedback – Even people of goodwill and the best good intentions struggle when they need to provide constructive criticism or feedback to a team/individual(s) because they fear hurting feelings or want to avoid conflict. The tone with which that feedback is given can help assuage this reluctance. In all cases, there must be an emphasis on communicating that the feedback is given so the team/individual(s) can take the most efficient path to their goals. Objective feedback is critical because self-awareness or overcoming personal biases is not a strong suit for many. A trusted leader can help bring objectivity, clarity and focus to fuzzy perceptions.
- Think beyond themselves – It’s natural for people to use their own experiences and observations to inform their perspectives and opinions. But too often, the default becomes personal reference points that are limiting such as, “Here’s how we did it before or at (blank).” There’s some value in that because it does provide one possibility. However, a good leader thinks beyond themselves and their own experiences and invites dialogue among the team. The collective perspective of a group will always be greater than the sum of its parts. Valuing each person’s unique experience and perspective adds exponentially more context, which almost always provides a better solution.
- Active listening – Too often people listen with an intent to respond. Active listening means listening with the intent to understand, and then respond based on that understanding. Responding without full context or understanding someone’s perspective is simply an eagerness to provide your own perspective. The team/individual(s) seeking advise may as well be talking to a wall. This happens too often when a company believes it has the best or most innovative product and they tell a customer or prospect “we have what you need” without ever listening to their needs. Or a coach says, “We had success with this scheme in the past so that’s what we’ll use” without regard to other ideas or a changing landscape. People love good listeners because they prioritize other people’s perspective over their own – another selfless trait of leaders.
Every aspect of our world and society can benefit from selfless leadership. While many leaders at the top or with titles exhibit such traits and actions, they are not as accessible on a personal level to most people. And frankly, at least some leaders who ascend to the top are there because of longevity, political savvy or power-seeking and are not as interested in the success of the team as much as in their own success. There is some element of this in every context including business, sports, religion, politics and even non-profit organizations.
The more “leadership from the middle”, the better for our companies, organizations, teams and ultimately, each one of us.