Some leaders I speak to undersell themselves. They think they haven’t done enough leadership training. They say they don’t know much about leadership theory.
Leadership training and study will only get you so far. Once you get thrown into the heat of battle and boil it down, often what’s needed is some common sense leadership.
Sure, it’s nice to know about the different styles of leadership. They can be a good reference point to use to try out some new ideas for your team.
However, if your default style happens to be common sense leadership then you’re on the right track!
Leadership Training Is Good, But Not a Silver Bullet
Organisations love leadership training. Putting your leaders through courses can feel productive. After all, you’re investing in your people, and they get a fancy certificate to put on their CV.
Unfortunately, some of the very worst leadership I’ve observed has been within organisations that have quite extensive leadership training programs.
That’s because it’s pretty hard to train somebody not to be self-serving, egotistical or thoughtless.
It’s also very difficult to train people to handle different types of leadership situations and team members, because there are so many combinations to consider.
That’s not to say training is not useful. In my experience, training is good for learning key skills such as delegation, handling difficult conversations, setting direction and managing your time effectively.
Then, it can also be helpful to focus on helping leaders understand more about themselves, using assessments such as PRINT (one of my favourites), or CliftonStrengths.
After this, leaders will often have all the tools they need. The difficult part is putting it into practice.
Let’s Use Some Good Old-Fashioned Common Sense
The good news is that common sense leadership is simple and effective. It simply relies on us exercising our common sense.
However, the popular saying goes something like “Common sense isn’t very common”. So instead of just telling you to use your common sense, I’ve outlined a few common sense leadership principles that you can follow below.
Stick to these and you won’t go far wrong.
Common Sense Leadership Principle #1: People Are Different – Treat Them That Way
Common sense will tell you that everyone is different. People have different personalities, motivations, habits, strengths and weaknesses.
This means it is impossible to lead them in exactly the same way. There really is no point adopting a standard approach to leading your people.
A single standard approach may seem quicker and easier, but may cause problems when some team members don’t respond well to your style.
People Are All Different, But Also Very Similar
As we know, people are all different – but it’s worth noting that in many ways, people are also very similar.
We can use this to our advantage. If we had to come up with a unique approach for every team member, we’d probably tie ourselves in knots and become overwhelmed.
The good news is that we can use these similarities to guide us. We know that in general, people want to:
- Feel included
- Feel safe
- Be aware of things that impact them or that they are interested in
- Feel motivated at work
- Be respected and recognised; and
- Have their contributions heard.
The real trick here is to get to know your team members. This will enable you to understand what interests them, how they work best and how to communicate with them.
That way, you’ll be able to tailor your approach where it matters, so that each individual can bring their best selves to the table.
Learn More: Don’t Know Your Employees? Here’s Why You Should.
Common Sense Leadership Principle #2: People Will Do What They Are Allowed to Do
I like to think of team behaviour as similar to water. The water fits the shape of the container that we provide for it. If we have no container, the water is free to run anywhere and everywhere.
People are similar. Their behaviour will follow the direction that we set for them. If we don’t set any guidelines, people will feel free to do as they please.
That’s why it’s so important for leaders to set the tone with consequences, rules, processes and standards for the team.
How strict you need to be will depend on the work you do and how experienced your people are. If you’re dealing with life or death, there will probably need to be strict instructions and standards.
Otherwise, you can set basic processes and standards, and allow people the flexibility to work within them.
If people aren’t doing what you need them to, common sense leadership tells us to ask the question:
Why would they bother to change their behaviour, if there is no reason to do so?
This is where we need to have consequences for behaviour and performance that fall outside of the guidelines we have set. Otherwise, we can’t expect our people to change.
Learn More: Don’t Have a Team Operating Model? Here’s Why You Need One.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #55: The Importance of Consequences for an Effective Workplace.
Common Sense Leadership Principle #3: Problems Won’t Fix Themselves
When you hear a strange noise from your car engine, what do you do?
Do you wait and see if it goes away? Or do you get someone to look at it before it gets worse?
You might try waiting, but the problem will undoubtedly remain and cause even more damage when the engine finally blows up!
Time and time again, I see leaders ignore team problems, only to have them blow up and bite them later on.
Repeat after me: “My problems won’t fix themselves.”
I remember one situation where a colleague of mine was having trouble with one of their people. They didn’t want to go down the formal performance management route, because they knew it was a lot of work and documentation, with a lot of meetings with the team member and the HR team.
So, they didn’t tackle the problem head on. They made small tweaks, resolved smaller conflicts when they occurred, but never addressed the root cause of the problem.
Eventually, the problem spread wider. Other team members became unhappy, and some of them quit. Unfortunately, these were the good team members!
Don’t leave an issue to solve itself, whether it be an issue with your boss, your team or anything else.
It rarely works, and if it does, you got lucky.
Learn More: Avoiding a Difficult Conversation? Ask Yourself These 3 Questions.
Common Sense Leadership Principle #4: Nobody Knows Everything
Sometimes leaders feel isolated. They feel like they have nobody to turn to and feel pressure to have all the answers.
Times have changed. In the “olden days”, directive leadership was much more common. Leaders were expected to tell people what to do and how to do it.
Now, more collaborative and inclusive leadership styles are common. Team members want to be involved, and they want to be heard and respected.
In many ways, this should take the pressure off leaders. They should feel happy that they can ask the opinions of the people around them, before making a decision.
But sometimes, we feel like this erodes our authority. If we need to ask everyone for input, who is really the boss?
It’s important to remember that it’s impossible for any person to know everything. This is why it’s so critical to have strong networks, with good people around you to help you along the way.
Find a mentor, a trusted colleague, a supportive boss or a coach. Test your thinking, ask for guidance and work together to lead your team better.
Learn More: How Much Technical Expertise Should You Have to Lead Your Team?
Bonus: Focus On Your People First
We hear this time and time again in many leadership quotes across the internet. Richard Branson said, for example:
“Take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your business.”
Focusing on your people and giving them what they need to be successful is perhaps the simplest rule to follow for leaders.
Dissatisfied people cause problems.
They act out. They quit. Unhappy people disrupt others. They work slowly, or not at all.
There’s another side to this too.
Do you like working with people who are self-serving? Who put themselves first, and put you last?
What about people who are moody, nasty or disrespectful?
I’d say the answer is a resounding “No”. So you don’t want your team members to put up with this, either.
Focusing on your people means treating them respectfully and understanding what they need. However, it doesn’t mean you need to be their “servant”.
You should never cater for the needs of your team so much that you put yourself at the bottom of the pile. But you do need to be aware of what your people need.
Learn More: How to Put Yourself First: A Guide For Leaders.
When You Don’t Know What to Do, Use Common Sense
Common sense leadership is my favourite default leadership style.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of leadership material out there, and you might feel like you don’t really know anything.
That’s fine, because you can always default to these simple principles.
- People are different. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach.
- People do what they are allowed to do. Guide them.
- Problems don’t fix themselves. You’ll need to take action.
- Nobody knows everything. Get help and support. And if you don’t do anything else, be sure to
- Focus on your people first. You need them to achieve your goals.
It’s not rocket science, but sometimes it can seem like it.
Let’s dumb it down and use some common sense leadership.
What other common sense leadership principles do you think there are? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!
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