Great Leaders Do Not Walk on Water

But they do the small things really well, and know how to make amends when they go wrong

The essentials

In an excerpt from his recently published book, The Science of Leadership, Julian Barling, Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen's School of Business, writes that the smallest things leaders choose to do (but do not have to) not only inspire followers, they re-inspire them again and again. Such actions from their leaders convey the trust, respect, self-efficacy, and sense of belonging that employees crave. As well, when effective leaders make a mistake, they take ownership and apologize. 

Excerpted from The Science of Leadership by Julian Barling with permission from Oxford University Press USA, © 2014 by OUP.

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Developing everyday leadership behaviors from theories with titles as lofty as “transformational leadership,” “servant leadership,” or “authentic leadership” is nothing short of intimidating. Despite this, the search for what this means for everyday leader behaviors should be very reassuring. Even the very best of leaders do not do everything. Bass and Riggio make this clear in their standard text on transformational leadership, when they say that transformational leaders “behave in ways to achieve superior results by employing one or more of the four core components of transformational leadership” (italics added). 

This is reinforced over and over when we conduct leadership interventions with executives. Like many others, I start by asking participants to think about the best leaders they have ever had, and then they tell us what it is that these people did that made them the best leader. Invariably an extensive list of wonderful leadership behaviors is produced by the group. If you then ask how many of these wonderful leaders did “everything,” you will be met with silence. Even the best leaders do not do everything, indeed could not do everything. Instead, what our participants tell us is that each one of these leaders excels at no more than a few of the behaviors identified.

When we go further with our participants, another leadership lesson emerges: Not only do the best leaders not do everything, but they also make mistakes in their leadership behaviors. And they are not alone. In an article in The Guardian, celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday in 2008, Adam Roberts proudly proclaimed, “But Mandela is not perfect,” adding later that his “imperfections are real.” Graça Machel, Mandela’s wife, enthusiastically agreed about Mandela’s mistakes, as did Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Also agreeing with them was none other than Mandela himself, who would remind anyone who would listen that “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Leaders Who Apologize are Viewed as More Transformational

What differentiates wonderful and less-than-wonderful leaders is not whether they make mistakes or not, but what they do afterward. What we continually hear from participants in our workshops is that all they want from their leaders following most transgressions is an apology. Intriguingly, apologies are not forthcoming, probably because of organizational concerns about legal liability and leaders’ own apprehensions about appearing to be weak in the eyes of their followers, despite the fact that leaders who offer an apology are viewed as more transformational, not less. The benefits of apologies do not stop there. More recent research that I conducted with Alyson Byrne and Kate Dupré even shows that apologies enhance employees’ well-being — and leaders’ well-being as well (likely because of the authentic pride associated with having done the right thing).

Despite the belief by many leaders that they need to display wonderful leadership all the time, it is worth remembering that this is neither possible nor necessary. One reason that this is not possible is that leaders are not physically co-located with their followers most of the time; in the globalized workplace, leaders may not even be in the same country as their followers. Add to this the fact that employees would likely be totally overwhelmed by a leader who, for example, was empathic or inspirational all the time. The challenge is not whether you can sustain high-quality leadership all the time — but whether you can ensure that you do it at the right time. Employees do not hold their leaders accountable for what they cannot do, but will certainly do so for what their leaders could have done but chose not to do.

The everyday opportunity from all of this is to remember that it is the smallest things that leaders do at the right times that can have very meaningful outcomes, and to act on it. This is more than amply demonstrated by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino’s research.  In their research, simply being told, “Thank you so much! I am really grateful” in an otherwise ordinary e-mail was enough to motivate more voluntary helping behavior — in one case, this small expression of gratitude  more  than  doubled the willingness to help on a voluntary task. This is also abundantly clear from what participants in our leadership development programs tell us. When asked how many of them had received a thank you card (or e-mail, or voice mail) from a leader, most respond affirmatively. When asked further how many of them keep these cards for years, most will tell you that they do. But the story does not end there. When asked again how many of them go back to look at the cards when they are having a difficult time at work, a surprising number tell us that they do so — and seeing the card lifts them again.

The smallest things that leaders choose to do (but do not have to) not only inspire followers, they re-inspire them again and again

The implications for leadership are clear: The smallest things that leaders choose to do (but do not have to) not only inspire followers, they re-inspire them again and again, sometimes years later, when their followers need it most, because how people are treated matters deeply to them. The smallest behaviors from their leaders convey the trust, respect, self-efficacy, and belongingness that employees seek, and they respond predictably when they experience these behaviors. Kivimäki and colleagues’ research findings also remind us that choosing not to enact the small leadership behaviors that employees realize are well within the leader’s reach, such as providing sufficient and consistent information, or offering praise when it was appropriate, can result in substantial health consequences. High-quality leadership is not simply dependent on huge investments in time and resources, but on remembering that people are remarkably sensitive to the smallest behaviors, and then choosing to act accordingly.

To conclude, the very best of leadership is not just about doing everything right, all the time, but about choosing to do the right thing at the right time. Organizational leaders have an incredible opportunity to change the way people see themselves, their future, and their work. Leaders need not be motivated to achieve the impossible to do so, but do need to ensure that they do the smallest things they can do, at the right time. The opportunity for leaders in doing so is to elevate those around them, enhance their well-being, and help them want to do what they can to see their organization thrive.

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