A successful leader creates the conditions for others to succeed. People are most able to succeed – and acquire the skills they need to succeed – when they are in a mind state of optimism, collaboration, creativity and growth. Of course, organisations can be successful with only a proportion of their people being successful (an 80:20 rule comes to mind – 20% of the people account for 80% of the success). Organisations are more successful, and perhaps more importantly, more resilient, the higher the proportion of people within them who are successful.
Leaders are critical in creating this successful mind state in their employees and they do so by how they engage with each one, some directly but most indirectly. An employee moves into this mind state when they are accepted, believed in and listened to by others, and critically by their leaders.
Acting against this are two interesting and well documented phenomena about positions of power. The first is that when people are in positions of power they find it hard to see the needs and actions of the people who are below them. The second is that people below them see with startling clarity everything that their leaders do and say, this is sometimes known as hyper vigilance.
This comes to the main point. Most leaders, like most adults, will have people they like, people they are indifferent to and people they dislike. Most effective leaders would say that they are polite and open to each group but spend more time with the people that they like. From the point of view of creating a successful organisation, it would make more sense for leaders to spend time with people who need their time (irrespective of whether they like them or not) but the first point above indicates that it is quite hard for a leader to know who needs their time. The second point above indicates that people below the leader will know with clarity who the leader cares about and who they don’t care about. Those the leader cares about will tend to be more successful, the others will be less successful or even fail.
It is worth exploring where like – and its opposite dislike – comes from. Essentially they come from three main sources: memories laid down in early childhood, projection of things we like/dislike about ourselves or associations with real experiences that we have had.
The first may need some explanation, explicit memory only begins after about 2 years old so we spend the first 2 years of our lives laying down emotional memories that are unlinked to explicit memories. What this means is that we can have a strong negative emotion because someone made a loud noise next to us as a baby. The fact that this person had certain facial characteristics can mean that thirty years later we can see similar facial characteristics and our memory triggers a negative emotion and we interpret this as dislike for the person.
In each of these cases the negative feeling that arises comes out of memory – not from the other person – and in certain mind states will trigger a cascade of further emotion. As people – and particularly as leaders – we can ignore the negative emotions and engage with a person completely as a person, and importantly, with practice we can learn to do this automatically, with little conscious effort. This allows us to engage with everyone on an even keel and determine whether they need our time or not. Thus we can extend the number of people we are helping to succeed.