By Jack Cumming

Not long ago, I published an article asking, “What business are we in?” Like most questions along these lines, that question was directed to the C-Suite. Around the same time I wrote that article, Steve Moran interviewed Mark Rockwell on Foresight TV. Mr. Rockwell explained how the same strategic questioning can lift every organizational level and improve the overall enterprise in the process. Each unit – maintenance, sales, activities, dining, and more – contribute within its function to corporate performance.

Mr. Rockwell is right. Sometimes that simple truth gets lost in the effort to please those above us in the organizational hierarchy. Imagine you lead a department in a senior living community with, say, a staff of 15, or maybe it’s a small team with three of you working together. Size is not the determining factor. That factor is mindset and vision.

Be the Leader You Would Want to Be Led By

First, as the leader, find time to ask your team to help you better define your purpose. It can be a series of conversations. Every employee brings commitment to the job. Employees want to be recognized and respected. Providing that respect is what makes you a leader. Mr. Rockwell suggests opening by asking your team, “Who are we?” The answer can seem obvious. If you listen carefully, though, unexpectedly thoughtful answers emerge.

The next question is, “Who do we want to become?” That’s more substantial. If the answer is, “We want to be the best at what we do,” you and your team can begin to think of what that would take – More training? Better systems? Meaningful metrics? Feedback? Whatever. Those ideas will gradually coalesce into a shared vision. The vision motivates your team. The vision lifts your shared performance. The vision gives your team cohesion and pride in all they do.

Employees want to succeed. They want to help. They want to matter. Sometimes the most difficult, most vocal employees – or residents – are your best advisors. Residents want to be proud of where they live. What you experience as disparagement may be exactly the advice you need to heed to achieve excellence. Confident humility – the willingness to listen and learn – is what distinguishes great leaders. Abraham Lincoln put this virtue into words when he said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Steve Moran has called this, “having the heart of a leader.”

Find Your Path to Excellence

Your team’s vision will not emerge immediately. It may take weeks or longer. It’s your judgment as the team leader to know when the vision is clear and to give it form and clarity. It can then become the defining message for your group. Repeat it often to keep people inspired and motivated. The message brings new members quickly into your team’s unique culture of achievement.

Imagine for a moment that you’re new to the role of leader. Asking your team to help define the group’s purpose, vision, and ambition will distinguish you as a leader who cares, who listens, and who articulates with clarity the group’s hopes. This is true whether you advance from within the group or come in from outside to reinvigorate a lagging function.

Expect to Be Tested

Any new leader can expect to be tested.  Some members of the team will declare their loyalty immediately. They may hope to ingratiate themselves. Others will hold back and observe before committing. By seeking the views of all and heeding what they say, you establish yourself as someone they can trust. That is hugely important. Feedback, listening, is the step in the cycle of improvement and excellence that is most often neglected.

Don’t overlook the silent ones. They may fear reprisal for speaking truth to power. As a leader, you need to hear that “truth.” By asking for feedback right from the start, you show that you respect the team members and that you want them to be able to feel good about themselves. That silent one may prove to be your best ally.

Great leaders seek input every day. Mr. Rockwell counsels starting each day with a 12-minute standup to ask each team member for short responses to three questions. “What did you do yesterday? What are you going to do today? And, what has you stuck?” That last question can’t be answered on the spot. It shouldn’t be answered on the spot. Still, it alerts you as the leader to how to channel your effort to best help your team to succeed.

Choose Your Niche And Get Good At It

If you choose your niche and get really good at it, your team will have pride, you will better serve your customers, and you will be responsive to the needs of your team members and those they serve. That’s a good approach to leadership at any level of the organization. Unless the organization excels at the lowest level, it can’t excel at the top.

Click here to read comments and join the conversation about this article.