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The Two Pieces of Effective Leadership

Jeff Havens

As you may already know, employee surveys have shown for the last several years that over two-thirds of us are disengaged at work. Twenty percent of us are actively disengaged, which means we hate our jobs and are encouraging our colleagues to hate their jobs – and that 20% alone costs over $500 billion every year in lost productivity.  


Interestingly, however, those same surveys also show that a healthy majority of us are satisfied with our jobs. The obvious question is, how is that possible?  How can most of us be satisfied and disengaged? I presented a TEDx talk on this very question several months ago, because this isn’t just an academic argument; the difference between a ‘satisfied’ workforce and an ‘engaged’ one is literally billions of dollars. Figuring out how to create engaged employees is almost certainly the most cost-effective use of a leader’s time and energy.

And fortunately for all of us, the solution is actually quite simple. All it takes is a single alteration in the way that we currently think about what leadership is.

I’ve spoken on employee engagement and other leadership topics for the past decade, and in that time I’ve read countless leadership books. You probably have, too, or at least you’ve pretended to in order to impress others and fill up those shelves in your office.) And unfortunately, the entire concept of leadership is generally presented as a single, unified concept with a unified collection of behaviors to model.  In other words, effective leaders do ABC, and ineffective leaders do XYZ. I’ve been guilty of the same oversimplification, and it’s one that inevitable leads to a professional world filled with satisfied, disengaged employees.

Because as it turns out, effective leadership is actually a little more nuanced. It involves two sets of skills, which I am going to call good leadership and great leadership. Good leadership focuses on interpersonal communication, and this is what most leadership education spends the majority of time talking about – sharing credit, providing intelligent incentives and motivators, having an open-door policy, etc. These are the behaviors that make people feel valued and respected.

Great leadership, however, focuses on our ability to communicate our vision for our company and our adamantine belief in the mission of that enterprise. Great leadership gets much less attention because there is much less to say about it. Really all a leader needs to do is communicate the importance of the work we do, and communicate to each of his/her employees how important they are to its successful execution. Both of these pieces are essential, and I cannot stress that enough. This is not an argument for focusing on greatness at the expense of goodness, or the other way around.  

Let’s look at a 2014 ADP analysis of survey results compiled by the Society of Human Resources Management. ADP found these to be the top 6 motivators for engaged employees, in this order:

  • The work itself
  • Relationships with co-workers
  • Opportunities to use skills and abilities
  • Relationship with immediate superior
  • Contribution of their work to the organization’s overall goal
  • Autonomy and independence

As you can see, two of these (relationships with co-workers, relationship with immediate superior) deal strictly with issues of interpersonal relationships; they are the function of good leadership. Two of these (the work itself, contribution of their work to the organization’s overall goal) deal strictly with issues of meaning and purpose; they are the function of great leadership. And the remaining two are a combination of both.  

What this means is that engaged employees are becoming engaged employees because their leaders are practicing both good and great leadership qualities at the same time. If we as leaders focus only on good leadership, on making people feel valued and respected, then we end up with employees who feel valued and respected but who don’t think the work they do is especially important – you can be satisfied that way, but you can’t be engaged if you don’t think that what you do matters. And if we focus only on great leadership, on telling people how important their work is, we end up with employees who feel like what they do matters, but that they themselves don’t matter very much – and you can’t be very engaged if you think you’re eminently replaceable.  

The problem is that we haven’t really acknowledged these two pieces as equally necessary. Most good leaders don’t spend enough time thinking about how to be great ones, so we have what we have now – a lot of satisfied employees that aren’t engaged. And most so-called ‘great’ leaders don’t spend enough time thinking about how to be good ones.  George Washington, for example, was an undeniably great leader for somehow keeping the Revolutionary Army together during that horrific winter at Valley Forge. But he was also a terrible listener, so bad in fact that he won only 33% of his battles because he refused to alter his battle plans when subordinates pointed out (quite rightfully) that their soldiers were mostly untrained militiamen incapable of functioning like fully trained soldiers.   

Basically, leadership boils down to this – all of us need to feel personally valued, and we need to believe that the work we do is somehow important. That’s all it takes to create an engaged workforce. Once we start focusing on being good and great leaders, on recognizing that these skills are distinct from one another and not mutually exclusive, we’ll start to see our engagement numbers heading in the direction we all want them to go.  

Jeff Havens is a professional development expert who addresses leadership, generational issues, and other areas of professional development through a unique blend of content and entertainment. He has been a regular guest on Fox Business News and featured in CNBC, BusinessWeek, and Bloomberg News. To learn more about Jeff’s keynote presentations and corporate training, visit JeffHavens.com

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