It’s the Small Things That Make a Great Leader

Leadership development is slowly becoming like late night TV ads. Over the past few weeks, I get these notifications of leadership development seminars that promise to make you a terrific and dynamic leader:

“Become an effective leader if you do these 5 things”

“Leadership training to become the leader of tomorrow.”

If it were that easy everyone would be doing it, was one of my father’s favorite quotes.

My eyes roll as I read each one. There is no magic wand to becoming a better leader. Whether it is 3 days or 5 days, it is not going to happen.

Leadership is about relationships

Exhibiting leadership is more than a few key words or principles. We have all met people we would consider great leaders. In a lot of cases, they have never taken any leadership training course. What they exhibit is an uncanny ability to connect with people. They build relationships and people gravitate to them.

I had a young lady tell me one time that in her company she gets many requests from people wanting to join her HR department. In asking her why, I already had a sense as to what she was going to say: “They said they like the way the way that we all tend to have so much fun together. You are such a different type manager and I would love to work for you.”

The most important trait of a leader is the ability to build relationships. That involves spending time listening to people. This is an authentic process and goes beyond the “how are you.” Real leaders build a persona or profile around each person. They know as much as possible about each and every one.

The small things make leadership work

I remember reading a story a while back about a CEO who had resigned the role he had occupied over a long period. When word got around the company, employees were crying. On one of the visits to one of their stores, employees were actually standing in the parking lot with signs that read, “Please do not go.” As the media got wind of this, they interviewed a few of the employees who all shared their stories how he went above and beyond for them: Showed up at the hospital when someone’s mother was sick; attended so many of their families’ funerals; in the stands at Little League games cheering on his workers’ kids.

The stories just piled up and they were all basically the same. What was exhibited was a caring and strong relationship to his people. As I read through this I pictured a person who was not driven by titles; this was a person who connected to his people regardless of their location on an org chart. All this summed up for me what leadership is really about. It is not about some class or book of knowledge. It is the small things.

Just this past week, I read the story of the CEO who walked one of his employees down the aisle at her wedding. He did this after her parents disowned her because she was marrying her girlfriend of 11 years. The parents did not believe in same sex marriage. John Li, CEO of HSBC bank in Taiwan, heard about this and offered to step in and walk her down the aisle.

Again, we see a bold leader who steps up and does what he thinks is the right thing to do. These are examples that are not taught in a class. These are all situational episodes that cause different reactions depending upon the person.

The basic framework of leadership

The basics of doing the right thing is just that; it is basic. These examples are not high-end theory, but more of people extending themselves for their people.

I have had leaders give me an award-winning spiel of how great they are, but when I speak to their employees, the picture they paint is not a masterpiece. In other words, these CEOs talk a good game, but they do not exhibit it.

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These cases that I used are CEOs in title. But what they did had nothing to do with a title. It had to do with the core of a person. Do you really care about your people? Whether you are the first level supervisor or the big shot in the corner office, connect and build a relationship with your people. These behaviors cannot be learned from a book.

Five words

Two simple words “Thank You” can outweigh any leadership principle. Three other words that are important and should be added to your toolkit, “I appreciate you.” Learn and honestly exhibit those two phrases and you have the foundation of reaching the mountaintop of leadership.

As my good friend, Peter Makowski, CEO of American Hospital in Dubai so fondly says, “My role is to take care of the people who take care of the people [customers].”

End of Leadership 101.

Class dismissed.

Ron Thomas

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.