Across the pond

Leaders should only have one face

Article written by Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP Vice President, Business Development – O. C. Tanner

I love optical illusions and seeing one picture initially and an entirely different image when I look at it from another angle.  A classic is the black and white illusion with a vase in the middle and two faces on either side.  I’m constantly amazed that what is so obvious after I discover it had completely eluded me initially. 

Many leaders today recount stories of having to operate in an environment of budget constraints, discontinued programmes, initiatives on hold, and they’re frustrated and immobilized waiting for better economic news.

But other leaders have seen something else and tell quite a different story.  They’ve confronted the challenges of the economic downturn – the aftermath of layoffs, doing much more with much less, and maintaining the trust and morale of their teams.  Their view offers more optimism – they see an opportunity to recalibrate and re-focus their organisations, and they’ve positioned themselves to drive the improvement. 

So what do these two very different ‘faces’ of leadership offer us in the way of guidance?  Is one an unrealistic optical illusion, or can both exist simultaneously?  The answer is yes and no.  Of course both perspectives exist, but as leaders, we have to choose which one we will embrace to move ourselves and our organisations forward.  Regardless of the challenges thrust upon us, we always have the free will to determine how we handle problems.

Be Authentic
While challenges abound for leaders, employees don’t expect you to have all the answers all the time or to be perfect.  What they do expect from you is for you to be authentic and to treat them like people.  Not as accountants, receptionists, or engineers, but to respect – and know – them as the people behind their job titles.  Employees will be far more forgiving and generous with their leaders if they feel a sense of human connection with them. 

Be a Business Leader
Your MD doesn’t want you to be an HR leader, sales leader, marketing or any other departmental leader.  There are far too many silos in most organisations already and they frequently prevent collaboration and the free exchange of ideas across the organisation.  MDs want you to be a business leader with HR, sales, marketing, or operational expertise.  It’s more than semantics – forcing yourself to view challenges and opportunities from a more holistic, corporate perspective will enable you to present your ideas in terms that align with the company’s overall goals.  You’re also likely to see more opportunities and ‘connect more dots’ when you expand your field of vision.

Lead for the Long Term
Employees need leaders they trust, a sense of hope, and a vision beyond the current challenges.  Strategic, responsible, accountable leadership is essential.  Building trust, setting the course, communicating priorities, nurturing the culture and making decisions for the organisation’s immediate needs and the long term benefit of the company are vital.  This isn’t the time to sit by and wait out the rough patches, but to get out in front and lead.  Step up to the challenges and do what’s right for the company and the people who make it run.  

Lead with Insight
Technology has enabled us to identify, accumulate and sort huge amounts of data about our customers, our employees, our competitors, and anything else we wish to explore.  We can easily become overwhelmed with information, but the real opportunity for leaders lies in converting that information into useful, actionable insight.

Take Time to Reflect
One of the realities of corporate life today is the sheer and unrelenting pressures leaders face.  Exhausting travel schedules, being incessantly barraged by email and phone calls at all hours are the by-products of a globally connected world.  The perceived requirement to be constantly available affects leaders’ lives, making it difficult to create deep relationships with colleagues, employees, friends, partners or children.  It also reduces the opportunity for private reflection that helps you to discover your ‘True North’ and provides the resilience so crucial for sound judgment.

Make Change Your Friend
See change as an inevitable part of business.  Don’t value change for its own sake, but know that success is only possible if your employees and organisation can embrace new ideas and new ways of operating when the old ways begin to languish.  Position employees in jobs they’re well-suited for and that will make them happy while they work to achieve the goals of the organisation.  Work should be inherently enjoyable for you and your team, and that’s only possible when the job fit is right, the work is meaningful, and progress is being made.

Focus on Innovation
A great deal of attention is paid to risk management in leadership ranks.  While it’s appropriate and necessary, I see a commonality between controlling risk and innovation, and focusing on the latter may prove more fruitful in the long-term.  Risk management and innovation both operate in the realm of the unknown and a dynamic balance between the two could yield enormous advantages to leaders willing to pursue both with equal vigour.  Controlling risk is about preparing for the unknown, and innovation is about enabling the unknown to emerge successfully from a secure environment.  They are two sides of the same coin and you will have to step out of your comfort zone to make progress.

The challenges leaders face today aren’t an optical illusion – they’re often daunting, and they certainly result in very real consequences that can impact the entire organisation.  It’s time for leaders to rise to the occasion and lead their teams out of uncertainty and tumult and onto a steady path forward.  They must be willing to consider abandoning their comfortable and familiar views for new ones yet to be discovered.


Named one of the most influential women in the incentive industry, Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP, is an accomplished author and speaker, past-president of the FORUM at Northwestern University, president emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association, vice-president of research for the Business Marketing Association, and vice-president of business development for O.C. Tanner.  You can contact Michelle at Michelle.Smith@octanner.com.

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