supportive leadership - leader standing and helping

Supportive leadership is one of the most important parts of being an effective leader. In fact, a recent McKinsey survey found that being supportive was at the top of the list of effective leadership behaviours.

For leaders who are internally focused and ambitious, this may seem counterintuitive. It means focusing outside of yourself and on your team first, rather than your own personal success.

A competitive cyclist doesn’t get very far if he focuses completely on his fitness and forgets about maintaining the bicycle that is taking him to the finish line. The showjumping horse rider won’t win if she turns up to the competition with a weak, starving horse.

So it is with leadership. If you’re supportive, the people that you lead will make you look good, and the results will take care of themselves.

Supportive Leadership Is More Than Just Focusing On Your Team

At first glance, it may seem like supportive leadership must be all about focusing on your team members. While this is an important part, we must also be aware of the environment in which our team operates and our own internal state of mind that helps us show supportive leadership behaviour.

Supportive leadership circles

The insecure leader is always focused internally, trying to avoid blame and scrutiny, which takes the focus away from supporting their team.

The manager who focuses exclusively on developing their team and being present is only doing half the job, because they may struggle if they don’t monitor the environment in which their team operates.

Let’s look at behaviours that will help you work from inside (The Self) to the outside (The Environment) of the circle.

Supportive Leadership Means Building Relationships With the Right People (Self)

Supportive leaders have a strong sense of self-worth and try to remain positive. Partly this is because they surround themselves with the right people.

Who are the right people? These are people who can help you by:

  • Acting as a sounding board to test your ideas
  • Letting you vent your frustration safely, when you need to let off steam
  • Demonstrating positive attitudes and behaviours
  • Keeping you focused on what you can do to improve, rather than on all the reasons why you can’t (the victim mindset).

The right people will help you demonstrate supportive leadership, because they will encourage a more positive frame of mind. When you feel good, you are more likely to be able to support your team.

Supportive Leadership Means Taking Care of Your Own Attitude (Self)

I’ve been in situations at work where I’m fed up. I’ve had enough. I’m frustrated, annoyed and angry. Guess what happens? My care factor drops, and I start being a less supportive leader.

Supportive leadership - care factor

Check in with yourself frequently and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you moving towards your goals? Or getting further away?
  • Are you able to be the leader you want to be in your current role?
  • Do you care about what your team or organisation is trying to achieve?

If the answers to these questions show that you’re off track, you need to take action. Identify some positive steps that you can take to help your mindset. If your mind is not healthy, you won’t be able to help your team.

When I was struggling, one of my former bosses used to say:

“Get your mind right.”

This is great advice, which I still use today.

Supportive Leadership Means Being Available (Team)

supportive leadership - open doorWhen managers are too busy, they start to lose focus on their team. If you are constantly in meetings and never where people try to find you, then your team are on their own.

To make yourself available to your team:

  • Schedule regular individual meetings with your team members, and don’t cancel
  • Check your body language. You might think you’re available, but does anybody feel comfortable approaching you?
  • Stop just being busy, start managing your time effectively. Busy does not mean productive.

Resource: If you are always busy, feel overwhelmed and can never get to the end of your to-do list, Thoughtful Leader can help. Enrol in the Time Management for Leaders Online Course, containing over 30 short video lessons with actionable strategies to improve the way you manage your time.

Supportive Leadership Means Making Failure an Option (Team)

Managers who never want their team to fail are doing them a disservice. Failure is always an option, and if you learn, it can be a great one.

Supportive leadership is about letting the team work things out for themselves, and providing guidance when things aren’t going quite right. It’s not about protecting your team at all times.

Your team members need to be able to fight their own battles. If you step in at the first sign of trouble, you are sending the message that you don’t think they can handle it by themselves. This undermines your team, and people outside of your team will think you don’t trust your own crew.

Keep in mind that some team members need more help than others. It’s important to be flexible and adapt your leadership style to suit the situation.

To make failure an option for your team:

  • Let them fight their own battles while you monitor what happens. Step in when you need to. Debrief with your team member to see how the situation could have been improved.
  • Give them more accountability to help them grow.
  • Avoid the blame game. Make it clear that you’re in it together.

Supportive Leadership Means Aligning Your External Stakeholders (Environment)

Supportive leadership - ducks in a row

Many leaders focus on their team so much, that they forget about everyone else. It’s important to observe how your team works with others.

You need to make sure that your external stakeholders are aligned with what you’re trying to achieve. For example, if you are trying to improve your team’s processes, you can’t afford to have people outside of your team undermining your efforts by wanting things to stay the same.

Let’s look at a simple example.

You think your team spends too much time creating a report every month. You want to streamline the process, and you tell your team members to simplify the report.

Unless you align with the stakeholders who use this report, they’ll keep asking for the old, more complex one. Your change will never be successful.

To align your stakeholders:

  • Organise regular catchups with key people and let them know what you are trying to achieve.
  • Let them know the part that you would like them to play in helping you improve the team.
  • Then, let them know what’s in it for them. This is important to gain buy-in!

Supportive leadership is more than focusing on your team. It’s also about yourself and the world around you.

Resource: If you need help to build your leadership skills and become a more thoughtful and supportive leader, I can help. Simply click here to learn more about Thoughtful Leader Coaching Services.


What ways have you been able to show supportive leadership? Let me know in the comments below!