4 Rare (and Brilliant) Things Smart Leaders Do to Get Respect

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Think about the great entrepreneurs that fuel success and make the business world go around. People like Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos; Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon; and Elon Musk, SpaceX founder are certainly celebrated for their success, but not always necessarily well-liked for the decisions they make.

But one thing they all have in common is the uncommon respect coming back to them. In my research of the best features of leaders that get respect from employees, it comes down to what they do from an emotional space — how they make their employees feel.

In other words, it’s the things they do that so deeply affect people’s emotional well-being in the positive, the response is of the utmost respect and admiration.

If you’re in any leadership capacity, take note: These 4 uncommon behaviors are known to command great respect, unprecedented employee loyalty, and lead to clear, competitive advantage.

1. They look to front-line employees for new ideas

At Toyota Production System, the Japanese practice of “Genchi Genbutsu” is a cornerstone of their success. Translated as “go and see for yourself,” the idea behind Genchi Genbutsu is to bring leaders down from their high perches to the production floor, where they can engage with workers, ask questions, and actively listen to truly understand current issues.

The approach helps cut right to the root cause so solutions are problem-solved together. This is where insight, innovation, and customer feedback live. And respected leaders are discovering such insights, at the ground level, are key to helping them with decision-making.

2. They are curious.

Albert Einstein famously said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

Finding the leadership trait of curiosity in your future leaders has tremendous impact, and its benefits are backed by science.

Harvard Business Review reports that people with a higher “curiosity quotient” (CQ) are more inquisitive and generate more original ideas, and this “thinking style” leads to higher levels of knowledge acquisition over time. CQ, the author states, “is the ultimate tool to produce simple solutions for complex problems.”

Leadership coach, speaker, and author Art Petty says, “In the right environment, curiosity leads to experimentation. Experimentation is the foundation of innovation.”

He adds an unique personal angle: “I once worked for a leader who lived and led by his curious nature. His questions about our customers, competitors, and processes reflected his pure sense of wonder. Instead of stressing us out, they fed our curiosity and subsequent explorations. A few of those explorations yielded great treasure. All of them taught us to think critically and avoid becoming prisoners inside our own four walls (or industry, or business model).”

3. They display the powerful attribute of vulnerability.

Poor leadership is everywhere, costing businesses millions of dollars. One of the factors behind it — a true blind spot for most people in management roles — is their inability to display the one strength of exceptional leaders: Vulnerability.

There’s immense power in in being openly vulnerable. It allows a leader to emotionally connect with his or her employees — the very definition of employee engagement. And when employees connect above the neck with their leaders, they will walk through walls for them.

Serial entrepreneur and investor Marcus Lemonis, the CEO of Camping World and star of CNBC’s “The Profit,” swears by it. He regularly admits to his own weaknesses and mistakes by showing vulnerability. Lemonis tells CNBC:

So often in business we think that a very proper and stern way of conducting ourselves as ‘know it alls’ and macho men and women is the way to be. But I actually believe that business is built on relationships. Relationships are built on trust, and trust is built on vulnerability and transparency. The key for me in building these relationships with business owners is by starting by unveiling myself first and uncovering my mistakes and my frailties and my weaknesses so that they can be comfortable uncovering theirs.

Scary proposition for many, but Lemonis clears the air. For him, being vulnerable has one defining purpose: “It’s to try to create relatability between people,” he says.

4. They are empathetic.

Henry David Thoreau once said, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant.”

Simply put, empathy is understanding another’s perspective — the path they’re on and what they’re feeling along the way. The practice of empathy only works in a business sense if the end result is removing barriers and helping your employees to succeed. It’s the feeling of safety and freedom employees get that releases them to do great work

Elon Musk understands the power of empathy, as his recent heartfelt email to Tesla employees will attest. When he learned of the far too many injuries happening at Tesla’s California plant, he wrote:

No words can express how much I care about your safety and wellbeing. It breaks my heart when someone is injured building cars and trying their best to make Tesla successful. Going forward, I’ve asked that every injury be reported directly to me, without exception. I’m meeting with the safety team every week and would like to meet every injured person as soon as they are well, so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better.

Musk even vowed to personally visit the production line and perform the very same tasks that might cause those injuries.

Not convinced yet? For more than four decades, global HR consulting giant Development Dimensions International (DDI) has been developing millions of leaders on personal effectiveness and employee engagement.

In one study, involving 15,000 leaders from more than 300 organizations, DDI researchers set out to determine which soft skill has the highest impact on overall performance for early stage leaders. Overwhelmingly, “empathy tops the list as the most critical driver of overall performance,” and consistently relates to higher performance.



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