Last week I was in the Canadian Rockies on the Alberta British Columbia border taking a mountaineering 101 course. I’m an avid hiker and love climbing mountains in remote locations, but this was my first step in learning to climb really big mountains covered in glaciers. Two of my friends and I organized a private 4-day course and hired an instructor from a top guiding company. Our instructor was smart, confident, and very assertive – all the qualities we typically expect in a leader – and we were eager to learn from him.
On our second day, as we prepared to climb on the glacier, I missed something that the instructor said so I asked for clarification. I was taken back when his response was a rather harsh reprimand for not listening. My friends and I immediately snapped to attention, which was precisely the result our instructor was after, but the atmosphere changed for the worse. We all became hesitant to ask questions because none of us wanted to experience another reprimand. When he asked us a question directly, we’d hedge slightly even if we were fairly sure of the answer. The other two tried to make light of it by joking that they were jockeying for star student status (I wasn’t even close to being in the running :), even if it meant throwing each other under the bus. The whole group dynamics changed so that we became almost as concerned about looking good (or bad), as we were about learning the skills.
As I traveled home, I realized that this experience was a microcosm of how many teams function in organizations across the world. Strong, assertive people tend to rise to the senior leadership ranks in most organizations. In many cases, the only leadership training new leaders receive is taking part in the male ‘locker room talk’ that pervades corporate boardrooms which can be summed up as “If you want to get things done, you need to kick some butt every once in a while.”
The Leader’s Mandate
I find it ironic that our instructor who was trying to teach us how to climb higher was actually bringing us all down. In the most popular article I’ve ever written, I argue that The First Rule of Management is to bring others up, because confident people perform better than insecure people in virtually every context and situation. The definition of leadership that best embodies that principle is this:
Leaders inspire positive action in others.
This is the leader’s mandate, and it should be included in every leader’s job description. The key words are “inspire,” “positive,” and “action.”
Leaders don’t coerce, they inspire.
Leaders don’t bring people down, they take others higher.
Inspired, confident people don’t waste time protecting their backsides, they take action.
The essence of leadership is taking others higher. Anything less is not leadership.Leaders take others higher. Click To Tweet
It is impossible to simultaneously inspire positive action in others while you are making them feel worse about themselves. But that’s not to say that it’s never appropriate to reprimand someone. When someone fails to respond to repeated attempts at gentle correction, a sharper reprimand may be required.
If required, a reprimand should
- be done privately
- be done calmly
- include standards of performance and consequences for not meeting those standards
- conclude with the managers sincere belief that the employee will meet or exceed those standards, and
- be followed by an increase in mentoring attention and support for the person who has been reprimanded.
A manager’s mindset and intent is perhaps more important than the content of the reprimand. When a manager expects that the employee will ultimately fail, the employee will feel it, and both the employee and the manager will subconsciously guarantee that self-fulfilling prophecy. Further, the manager should leave the unmistakable impression on the employee that their intent is to help the employee be more successful. Contrary to common belief and practice, the purpose of a reprimand is not to communicate the manager’s frustration with the employee.
Correction can be inspiring when done with the right mindset and sincere concern for the employee. People in leadership positions are only being leaders when they are taking others higher.