People don't follow "normal." They follow the unexpected.
Taylor Swift has sold millions of albums and has a loyal following that can rival any. Sure, she's a great singer, but what sets her apart is the humility and realness that she has brought to being a pop star. On endless occasions, she has surprised her fans with gifts, guest appearances and letters. And it wasn't her "people" that put these things together or wrote the letters. It was her. Authentic Taylor Swift.
It's no surprise that she has had the wild success she's had. Just like with Taylor, when leaders practice humble leadership, it creates exponentially more inspired employees and followers.
I want you to close your eyes for a moment and picture a favorite leader you’ve had. I bet there is a common thread. The person you’re thinking of wasn’t “expected.” I bet this person acted in a way that wasn't necessarily normal for someone in his or her position.
It is so easy to get caught up when becoming a leader. People will put you on a pedestal. You may start to emulate other leaders … Their poise … Their importance … Their blah. Don’t do it!
Being unexpected can take many shapes and sizes. For me, it was authentic humility.
Practicing radical humility can be powerful. It is my #1 weapon for creating unmatched followership.
Here are three simple things you can do to be a humble leader:
1. Write Your Own Communications
When I was the CEO of PayFlex, I was part of a much larger enterprise. The enterprise thus came with some “mature” corporate tools. We had access to things such as communications partners and formal communication templates that all leaders used. I didn’t use them.
Why? When I read those corporate communications, I could see right through them. I knew that, for the most part, it wasn’t really the leader speaking; it was someone speaking on their behalf. To me, they weren’t authentic. And not many people have the time, patience or energy to read inauthentic emails.
One of our company’s top executives cranked out communications regularly, using the standard format and written by someone else. And then one day, she sent out an email. No fancy template, no picture of herself … just an authentic message.
I read every single word. I even wrote her an email in return regarding it. I never would have done that to a formal email that she supposedly sent. I vowed then to buck the trend, forgo the help and the fancy templates (and these tools were tempting, as you did feel kinda important when you saw them) and always write my own communications.
My team knew me and my voice. They responded exponentially more often when they knew it was their fearless leader and not just a fancy, check-the-box communication.
2. Get Your Hands Dirty from Time to Time
Look, it’s important you know that I don’t mean micromanage. I don’t mean get wrapped up in little stuff you shouldn’t. But you have to do a little dirty work once in a while. That’s what good teams do.
For example, if there is a document needed that normally your team does, but you know they’re buried, do it your-flippin-self.
It’s amazing how atrophied many leaders become. They used to be a killer worker … And then people offered to do it for them … And they stop knowing how to do actual work.
It’s easy to slide into the culture where you’re waited on hand and foot. Getting involved in stuff that people don’t expect you to do will not only help others, it will set a good example for your team that you’re all in it together.
This goes beyond work. I remember several times where we had a social gathering, and when it was time to put out the food, clean up, etc., people would say to me, “Don’t worry Erin, we’ve got this.”
It was so important to me to push back on that and help out, too … no matter how small, dirty or laborious it was. People remembered times like this and mentioned it to me years later.
Staying humble and helpful is (sadly) unexpected for many, yet it is one of THE most powerful ways to gain trust and followership.
3. On Occasion, Make a Fool of Yourself
It was about 10:30 at night. We were about two-thirds of the night through an 80s themed party that we threw to celebrate the 30th anniversary of our company. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure how an 80s costume party was going to go over. I’m not really a costume kinda girl.
When it came time to pick an outfit, I decided to forego the Madonna-esque costume that initially popped in my head (it would have been so fun to go back to my 80s comfort zone of fluorescent colors and big hair!).
I instead decided to get the ugliest men’s wig and dress up full-bore as a male hair band singer, complete with fake sleeve tattoos.
Many people didn’t even recognize who I was. I decided the amount of fun I had would have a direct impact on the amount of fun everyone else had (I am their leader … always). I danced for hours that night.
In the end, it was moments like this that defined the culture and leadership style I wanted to convey. People to this day still talk about that night and how inspiring it was to them. They saw it as more than me just letting my hair down (well, someone else’s hair down). They saw it as a signal that our company was a place where you could take risks, be yourself or be anyone you wanted to be.
Great leaders are those who people follow, if only out of curiosity.
Look, if you’re reading this and are thinking “Uh, yeah, that’s so not me” – THAT IS OK! What I’m saying is you have to find your own authentically unexpected style.
As a leadership coach once said to me, “To be a great leader, look around at what others are doing … and then do the exact opposite.” I couldn’t agree more.
The easy path is to follow what others are doing. Don't try to make yourself look like one of those other prestigious managers or executives. That’s not what people are looking to follow. They are looking for those people who bust through the norm – in business and in everything they do – so they can be inspired to do the same.
Normal is no fun. Be different. And watch others follow.