By now, the principles for mobilizing people toward a strategy are well known. Yet, some managers are far more successful than others in using those leadership principles to gain results.
"Everyone knows to start with a vision of the desired result, engage talent, execute the plan, and hold people accountable and tweak the plan as they proceed. Everyone's doing that. Why do some people get results and others don't?" Los Angeles clinical psychologist and executive coach Henry Cloud noted in an interview.
His answer: The people who get results lead in a way that the brain can follow. In essence, good leaders set out boundaries for their staff – the equivalent of a property line that defines what everyone should be concerned with and what they shouldn't. Those boundaries are guidance for the brain.
Here are seven boundary lines a manager needs to establish:
Dr. Cloud points to three aspects of the latest scientific research that are vital for any activity, from shopping for groceries to hitting a corporate strategic goal. First, the brain must focus on what is required to get to the goal. Second, the brain should shut everything else out. Finally, you must keep a working memory, because you must know the actions that have already been completed. "The best leaders do that in a thousand different ways," he said of those three steps. "On the other hand, you find a lot of leaders who create ADD [attention deficit disorder] organizations."
2. Emotional climate
Our brains work best in a positive emotional climate. We have problems in a negative emotional climate. Under stress, our fight-or-flight brain kicks in, not to our benefit. So leaders must spend time trying to build a positive emotional climate in their organization. "There is a good fear, such as fear of reality. ... Leaders need to create a sense of urgency around real consequences of not performing. But that is different than putting people in a state of toxic emotional threat. When leaders do that, they are working against themselves," he writes in a ChangeThis article drawn from his book, Boundaries for Leaders.
Dr. Cloud said our brains need oxygen, fuel from eating, and connection. The more people feel they have buddies at work and are connected to others rather than working alone, the better they perform. After the Wall Street meltdown, he helped to organize thousands of despondent stock brokers to work in teams and develop deals together rather than in isolation. "They changed clinically, their brains changed, and their performance improved," he said in the interview. Leaders must ensure connection is happening – not only team building but also a culture where colleagues can count on each other if they need something.
4. No negative thinking
Leaders must be the steward of the organizational thinking climate, ensuring optimism and avoiding what he calls "the pessimism virus" that can insidiously affect a team. He warns us to be on guard against the "three Ps" of pessimism:
Personal; for example, saying "I'm no good," after something goes wrong;
Pervasive; for example, extending the pessimism from difficulty in one product to believing all the company's products are bad;
Permanent; that is, believing the negative situation will remain forever.
5. Give staff control
To help their staff not feel powerless, leaders must help subordinates define what they can control to help the organization and their unit move ahead. "This is a huge thing in performance-oriented companies. If you ask people what can drive results, they know it and measure it. Leaders give people control of [the things] they can control that drive results," Dr. Cloud said.
6. Set team values
Successful leaders organize teams around values that will drive the behaviours needed to get results. He gives the example of a hospital that intends to reduce the infection rate. This might involve creating a pre-surgery checklist to be very precise about the steps staff take, and having a team value that anyone can speak out when they see something wrong – such as nurses being able to question what doctors might be doing wrong, and being respected for speaking up. An innovation team, in contrast, might value speaking out but not be particularly concerned about precision.
7. Have self-control
Top leaders must lead themselves in a manner that protects the mission. This includes being open to outside feedback, and establishing systems to make sure they are in touch with reality, both inside and outside the organization. They are also very careful about their own negative thinking and fears. As Dr. Cloud noted: "Leaders do goofy things when they act on their own fears."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter