How to be the Leader Your Teams Want to Follow

“The day your soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the last day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either is a failure of leadership.” - General Colin Powell

The U.S. Army’s Leadership Field Manual has three main points that are a direct corollary to being a strong Business Sergeant who is able to lead a strong team of troops: BE, KNOW, and DO.

BE of high moral character.

KNOW your specialty.

And to DO means not being a theorist with a desk growing out of your chest, but rather leading from the front and setting a great example for the rest of the team to follow. Leadership is about setting a vision and management is about executing that vision and managing the accountability that goes along with it.

Most people can pretty easily articulate why they enjoy working for a strong leader, and it’s these leaders who make it very easy for their team members to want to give 100%.

When it comes to being a leader your teams want to follow, here are 8 steps to get there.

Step 1: Have an Operating System

The first step in demonstrating strong leadership is to pick an operating system, commit to it, and then follow it religiously. That may seem obvious, but I’ve seen numerous businesses operate without any system. Without the intentionality a system brings, people will slide back into their normal human behaviors and then you’re back to getting inconsistent results. If for some reason your people are having a good week, you’ll get a ton of results; if they aren’t inspired to work hard the following week, you’ll most likely get much less. Who’s running this business?

But if you’re using a system, you will have consistent output; any time performance falls below the standard you’ve established, the system will indicate it and allow you to fix it. The responsiveness of the system allows you to be more agile and more flexible than if you don’t have one. Without one, you’re basically searching around half the day figuring out what’s broken. With a system, you immediately know what’s broken and can fix it immediately.

Step 2: Enforce Accountability Through Consequences

When I begin coaching a business, I’ll ask people, “On a scale of 1-10, what level of accountability exists in your organization?”

The average number that I get is 3. I often find a great disparity between how the leadership team and the business owner rate accountability. The leadership team will usually give accountability a 6 or 7, but the owner will rate it a 3. The owner’s accountability rating is almost always several points below the staff’s rating. It’s almost as if the owner is passive-aggressively saying, “I wish you all would be a little more accountable to me and each other.”

When you have a scorecard tracking everyone’s weekly activities, you’re either “on track” this week -- thumbs up, high-fives, great job -- or you’re “off track,” and it’s time to, “put this on the issues list and discuss what’s not working.”

As a leader, you need to establish really high levels of accountability: “If this doesn’t happen, what happens as a consequence?” I usually see a lot of barking by the owner, but they usually don’t have very sharp teeth. They make a lot of noise but nothing really happens because there are no real consequences. There’s no scar, no reminder, no lesson to be learned.

So as a Business Sergeant, establish consequences with your team: “If this is what happens, this is the recourse.” When you have a set of rules and guidelines, and there are clear and universal consequences for breaking them, you’ll find that tasks get accomplished on a much more regular basis. I like to give the example: If everyone always got a warning for speeding instead of a speeding ticket, people would speed a lot more than they already do. I know I would.

Step 3: Be Firm, Fair, and Consistent

The concept of being firm, fair, and consistent was first taught to me in the Department of Corrections when I was just 20 years old. That’s how we were told to carry ourselves to enforce the many rules of the prison, and that’s also how you could expect to be led by your Sergeant. In a place like that the price to pay for inconsistent, unclear, or weak leadership was very steep indeed.

Firm: Be clear and direct about your expectations. Be confident in your delivery.

Fair: Treat everyone in the exact same way you’d like to be treated.

Consistent: No one wants a Jekyll and Hyde characters as their boss.

If you’re not firm, fair, and consistent, you create way too much extra work for your subordinates -- and yourself.

Step 4: Be Direct and Decisive

It hurts in the long run if you can’t be direct with your people about what they need to do and what needs to be changed. Candy-coating problems doesn’t fix them. You need to be able to say to people, “We have a problem and we will fix it.”

Your employees might push back and think you’re being too harsh, but I’d rather have that type of response than the passive-aggressive kind: “Don’t worry, that’s fine, I’ll take care of it.” That employee is likely to badmouth you the moment you leave the room, and that type of behavior only chips away at the company’s culture. A passive-aggressive, complacent environment is pervasive in the business world, poisoning goodwill and dragging down office morale.

At the end of the day, you need to be firm with your people and stand for what you believe in -- and what everyone agreed they were going to believe in -- the core values. Be clear: “This is how we operate as a company; if you don’t like it, we’ll still love you, but you’ll have to go work somewhere else.”

Step 5: Eat Last

We have a rule in the military that Leaders Eat Last, and it’s not meant metaphorically. Sergeants don’t eat until their whole platoon has been fed. Instead of eating, they check on the health and welfare of their troops, joke with them a little bit, and thank them for their hard work. It’s an opportunity to lead by letting the team go first, and I think doing that three times a day really shows everyone how “Servant” leadership should look like.

When a leader has invested in his people time and time again, it’s a lot easier for that leader to ask 100% from his team. They’ll say, “Absolutely, I’ll follow you anywhere.” They’re returning the favor. Versus an uninterested, uninvolved, and uncommitted leader, who might get away with putting in half a workday and is oblivious to the effect that has on his team. In the long run, no company or department can survive when it’s commanded by a stuffed shirt who doesn’t inspire professional growth among his team, and who doesn’t put the same investment into the vision and mission as his team members.

Step 6: Don’t Feed Ego

A weak leader is threatened by people who may know more than he does. I’ve seen this countless times -- someone comes in to apply for a senior sales position, and the sales manager doing the hire says to himself, “Wow, her management resume is better than mine!” He may shred that resume because it represents a threat. In contrast, a really strong leaders says, “Our team would be far stronger because of this person’s experience, and I could learn something from her as well.” Strong leaders aren’t threatened by having talented and competent people around them; they WANT to be surrounded by hungry, ambitious, and talented team members.

Step 7: Support Middle Managers

The next rule of being a strong leader is that you need awesome Corporals to be a great Sergeant. What I notice is that middle managers in a business -- the Corporals, the first-line leaders, the people right over the line staff -- have a huge range in quality, from really sharp and squared away, to lesser situations where quite often the executives above them are effectively doing the middle management jobs as well. When I talk to executives and really start digging down into what they do on a daily basis, I ultimately find out the problem is that the middle management person is not doing his or her work, and most importantly, is not being called out on it. I end up calling out the leadership team for doing too much work, and my next question is always this: what is your plan for developing your middle managers?

If you want to have an elite culture, you have your standards set for minimum, average and exceeding, and then put the right “A Players” on the field to help push the team toward you shared vision. An important frontline in that push is promoting and supporting the best Corporals, because they’re really the ones who will make it happen for you. Empowering your Corporals in the culture will have huge returns -- they’re the frontline leaders, they’re in the bridge between the Sergeant and the Privates in the military, and in the business world, your junior leaders are the bridge between your newest generation of hires and the Senior Team Leaders they’re aspiring to become. In the military, you have to keep your Corporals challenged, and in the business world it’s no different. The more inspired and fired-up you get your junior leaders to be, the more you can create a combustible culture where everyone in your company is working in synergy toward the same shared vision up and down the line.

Step 8: Mold the Next Generation of Leaders

The leadership team you’ve deployed on the business battlefield today could be entirely different just six months from now. If you’re thinking, “Hey, I’ve had this team for the last five years, I can expect little to no movement over the next five,” that’s a mistake. It’s important to have great leaders and at the same time be developing new leaders. Put promising people on a leadership development track, invite them to certain upper-level meetings, and give them access to top level decision making. Let them know you’ve identified them for the management in the future.

Chris Hallberg