The two pieces of effective leadership

Could leadership be this simple? Jeff Havens explains the semantics behind good and great leadership.

Employee surveys have shown for the last several years that more than two-thirds of us are disengaged at work. Interestingly, those same surveys also show that approximately two-thirds of us are satisfied with our jobs. How is that possible? How can most of us be satisfied and disengaged? 

This isn’t just an academic argument. The difference between a ‘satisfied’ workforce and an ‘engaged’ one is billions of dollars. Figuring out how to create engaged employees is the most cost-effective use of a leader’s time and energy. 

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

Like you, I’ve read countless leadership books. In the vast majority of them, the entire concept of leadership is presented as a concept with a unified collection of behaviours to model. In other words, effective leaders do ABC, and ineffective leaders do XYZ.

This is an approach that leads to the professional world that we have today – one filled with satisfied, disengaged employees.

If either good or great leadership practices are not present, then employee engagement won’t exist.    

By contrast, the kind of leadership that leads to engagement is 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 discusses – sharing credit, providing intelligent incentives and motivators, having an open-door policy.

These are the behaviours that make people feel valued and respected, which is an essential component of the engaged employee.

Great leadership focuses on our vision for our company and our adamantine belief in the mission of our enterprise. Great leaders are often the subject of business biographies, but the techniques of great leadership get much less attention because, when compared to good leadership, there is much less to say. 

There are only two requirements: communicating the importance of the work that is being done, and letting every employee know how important they are in the successful execution of that work. The trick is understanding that both of these pieces are essential and are not interchangeable. If either good or great leadership practices are not present, then employee engagement won’t exist.    

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 six 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 my work to the organisation’s overall goal
  • Autonomy and independence

As you can see, two of these markers of employee engagement (relationships with co-workers, relationship with immediate superior) deal strictly with issues of human connection, and as such are the result of good leadership practices. 

Two of these (the work itself, contribution of my work to the organisation’s overall goal) deal with issues of meaning and purpose, and as such are the result of great leadership practices. And the remaining two are a combination of both. 

What this means is that engaged employees are becoming engaged employees because their leaders are practising both good and great leadership qualities at the same time. 

If leaders focus only on good leadership, they will end up with employees who feel valued and respected but who don’t think the work they do is especially important – a person can be satisfied that way, but it’s difficult to be engaged if you don’t think your job matters. 

And if leaders focus only on great leadership, they end up with employees who know that their work matters but who are far less certain that they themselves are essential or valued – and while a person can be satisfied in knowing that their job is making a difference, it’s much harder to be engaged if you think you’re eminently replaceable. 

Basically, leadership boils down to this – we all 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 recognising that these skills are distinct from one another and not mutually exclusive, we’ll start to see our employee engagement heading in the direction we all want it to go.  


About the author

Jeff Havens is a speaker, author, and professional development expert who tackles leadership, generational, and professional development issues with an exceptional blend of content and entertainment. He is a contributing writer to Fast Company, Entrepreneur, BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal; and has been featured on CNBC and Fox Business.


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