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Leading with Character: Inspiring Others

As I worked my way up through the ranks in the US Coast Guard, my focus shifted from learning to lead myself and developing my own leadership skills to developing and leading others. There’s so much power in giving back because you gain more than you give. Leader development becomes a virtuous cycle when people deepen their learning by seeking mentors, then give back by inspiring others in turn. I leaned on three tools in my effort to inspire others, and so can you: Emotional Intelligence, Mentoring, and Empowering.

Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence includes a number of elements such as self-awareness, empathy, compassion, self-care, social skills, and more. To me, emotional intelligence measures a leader’s softer skills, whereas intellectual intelligence measures a leader’s harder skills. Since hard skills are more tangible and can be more easily measured, intellectual intelligence has long been the predominant measure of one’s ability. But in recent years, the concept of emotional intelligence has been gaining more momentum, as people better understand its value in the workplace.

Consider who’s apt to be a more inspirational leader…one who has emotional intelligence competencies and understands people, or one who focuses solely on results? I call emotional intelligence a tool because it’s an enabler, and it’s a skill that can be learned through practice. First, one must assess the environment in the spirit of what another person may be feeling, consider options, take a specific action, then reflect on the impact to reinforce learning. An attitude of “meeting another person where they are” can help a leader bring that individual to where he or she needs to be. For instance, a leader might reach out to an employee who isn’t meeting expectations to learn more about what is holding him or her back, address those findings, develop a plan to move forward, follow up periodically to assess progress and finally, reflect on the process to reinforce learning.

Young people today want supervisors to know who they are. They want to do hard things, but need someone to encourage them and help them understand how to succeed. They’re looking for role models. One of the very best, and most basic, things supervisors can do to inspire the next generation is to model the way.

Going one step beyond modeling the way is mentoring. Mentors can help others recognize their talents and abilities, develop goals, work through problems, improve weaknesses, and leverage strengths. Having mentored many people, I believe what mentees need most is timeless advice on how to approach obstacles, confront challenges, and recognize opportunities.

Mentoring can be informal or orchestrated through a formal program—and there are some good programs out there. But I prefer informal, organic mentoring, wherein a relationship occurs naturally, initiated by either a person who desires to mentor, or one who desires to be mentored.
Effective mentoring requires active engagement by both juniors and seniors. Although senior leaders will often reach out their hand to juniors, it’s incumbent upon juniors to initiate reaching out for mentoring.

My advice to mentors is, ask mentees to think one step ahead and discuss what they see as their vision of success. There’s an innate tension because achieving one’s goals requires tough trade-off decisions and careful planning—it’s not easy. With hard work and perseverance, people can achieve their goals over a lifetime, but not all at once. People need to look beyond the present to consider the future because where they see themselves finishing will influence the career and personal choices they make today and along life’s journey.

My advice to mentees is, actively seek a diverse set of mentors who will offer a broad perspective—sort of like “taking a fix” on a ship at sea. Mentees shouldn’t hesitate to ask for mentoring and should continually seek chances to grow and learn from others—especially those who don’t look or think like them. Mentees should clearly convey their career goals and objectives and ask a mentor for help in shaping and evaluating alternatives. But, they should never expect their mentor to pave the way for a plum job. There is no elevator to ride to the top. Regardless of all the benefits that can flow from a mentoring relationship, individuals are responsible for their own success or failure.

Leaders must encourage and reward imagination, innovation, and thinking outside the box. We need the best and brightest minds to help make America strong. But, many leaders are reluctant to accept the risk that inherently comes with empowering subordinates. That’s understandable. I’ve watched as well-meaning leaders tried to do the right thing by giving their people more autonomy and control, but without first setting the employee up for success. Leaders need to embrace the risk and demonstrate the courage to stretch beyond their comfort zones, and inspire their subordinates to do the same. Here are five steps a leader can take to successfully empower others:

  • First, foster a workplace climate that encourages people to feel comfortable sharing thoughts and ideas: meet people where they are and make it a point to feed their strengths rather than point out their weaknesses; ask people for their thoughts and ideas;
  • Then, encourage imagination, innovation, and thinking outside the box—publicly recognize those who try new things, even if the idea doesn’t work the first time.
  • And, be inclusive; don’t just push empowerment down to those who are more confident, draw out the quieter ones and those who may hold back—sometimes they have the best ideas;
  • Next, set clear expectations and boundary conditions that will help people keep on track while being creative—this is where the supervisor needs to model the way by taking the blame for what doesn’t work out right, and giving credit when a subordinate’s idea or effort succeeds;
  • Finally, follow up with periodic meetings to assess progress and direction.

I trust these three tools: emotional intelligence, mentoring, and empowering will serve you well in inspiring the next generation of leaders of character!

Look in the mirror: Which of these tools will you use in the next week or so to inspire someone in the workplace?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: