Iconic Leadership: Be the person you want to lead

I’ve read that some people are getting sick of the term “iconic”. Whatever you think of the moniker, there is no denying that in North America we pay a lot of attention to cultural icons. Everywhere you look you see manifestations of popular culture personified by individuals: Lady Gaga is the iconic pop star, Steve Jobs personifies passionate perfectionism. Though some will roll their eyes at the idea of imitation, there is no questioning that our collective culture is transformed by what our icons do.

For leaders, whose very job requires them to shift culture and transform workplaces, the fascination with icons is a good thing. It gives you a fairly simple lever to use in your quest to alter the status quo.  By consciously becoming the symbol of whatever you want to see, you are building on the notion that employees imitate what leaders do.  Recruiters still tell people – if you want to get promoted, dress and act like those at the level that you aspire to.  This goes beyond physical imitation. Leaders, simply by being leaders, have the chance to become icons. It’s time to think seriously about what Mahatma Gandhi said (oft quoted, seldom lived): “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

From a practical perspective, here are some things to consider:

  1. Do you want your employees to be more engaged? Then demonstrate engagement yourself. In your workplace, you can behave in visible ways that show how interested you are.  If you work for government, perhaps it’s making time to watch council proceedings or debates. Maybe it’s taking time to read the industry-specific magazine. Perhaps it means staying alert and interested during business presentations (instead of glancing at your smart phone, nodding off or stepping out early).
  2. Is work/life imbalance creating stress for your employees?  Demonstrate what it looks like to “take a break” – go for a walk, sit and read a non-work related book, chat with others in the staff room about non-work concerns. Learn how to keep reasonable hours and let others see you going home at a decent time. Don’t send emails in the middle of the night (you can compose them anytime, but send them during work hours). Talk about other interests that you have to show your own sense of balance.  Increase the whole team’s health by taking care of your own.
  3. Would you like to increase the communication skills of your staff? Instead of lecturing them about it, take a solid look at your own skills. Be more succinct in your conversations; pause to listen and then say only what is needed without repeating yourself. Write emails and letters that are courteous and clear. Increase your vocabulary and style options by reading more. Ask others to proofread important documents. Learn how to consider your audience when composing a message. When someone misunderstands you, take the blame for being unclear and work harder at being easier to understand.
  4. Is there a need for more innovation and risk-taking?  Check how many changes you’ve made in the last while. If you are wearing the same hairstyle and clothing you did five years ago you have either found your unique brand, or you are demonstrating stability and staleness. When someone tries something new, even if they fail, have a celebration! Show your pleasure at the first sign of creative thinking. Learn to invite your staff to challenge you, and take it in good humour. Sit in the proverbial “dunk tank” at the next company picnic.
  5. Do you wish your staff were more professional and polished? Take a more formal approach to how you work with them. Be respectful of everyone, regardless of their level in the hierarchy. Don’t use nicknames and inappropriate jokes.  A friendly tone and a smile are both warm and professional. Be careful that you don’t use your office as a place to relax your standards when you are tired or angry. Don’t shout at people. Don’t whine or complain. Don’t gossip. Don’t behave in petty ways that you hate to see. Demonstrate the ability to self-manage your emotions, without becoming robotic.

And so it goes on. Ask yourself what behaviours and attitudes you wish to see in your workplace. And start to be that wish.

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