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5 ways to be a better leader

Poor leadership contributes to disengagement and low productivity at the workplace.

So what do a peace-loving elephant, an autocratic lion and an eager beaver have to do with toxic leadership? Plenty, said leadership coach and author Jean-Francois Cousin (header image). In his latest book Game Changers at the Circus, he tells a fable of animal leaders in a circus with toxic leadership styles who eventually got stirred into action to pull off the performance of a lifetime. Cousin was previously a vice-president for cement company Lafarge, where he had worked for 15 years before becoming a leadership coach. Here are his top leadership tips.

1. Validate others.

The biggest problem with leaders is that they do not give enough credit to their staff when it is due, Cousin says. “We all need a strong sense of self-worth…When people never say thank you, take time to praise, workers won’t feel valued. People won’t give their best if it’s not recognised.”

2. Allow staff to learn and grow.

Another mistake occurs when leaders treat subordinates like children, in what he calls a “parent-child relationship”. This form of toxic leadership style is exemplified in several of the animals in his book, such as the lion, the elephant and the beaver. Cousin explains that the lion manages by fear and punishment because he is worried someone will take his position, so he is not going to develop his cubs. As for the elephant, the toxicity of her leadership style is much more insidious. She grooms her people without letting them take risks and overprotects them.

 “It’s toxic as a management style because it prevents people from growing as they are shielded from failure.” Constructive feedback and one-on-one time will help them remove the fear of failure. He observes that many companies have staff with low engagement and initiative because people are afraid of punishment if mistakes are made.

3. Don’t micro-manage. 

As the beaver, a micro-manager in the book, is obsessed with perfection, her workers just wait on her orders and do as they are told. Again, it’s a parent-child relationship that keeps employees disengaged and unproductive.

“I am opposed to a paternalistic approach to management. It may sound nice, but it’s self-preserving at the expense of employees’growth. They pretend to take care of their people, so they secure their jobs as no one challenges them or can replace them. It looks caring, but it’s selfish and toxic.”

4. Keep it real.

Leaders have to seek to be authentic and humble. “Apologise when you are wrong, ask for help if you don’t know. This is contrary to the old leadership style where the leader is the one who knows best,”he says.

The next step would be to lift up the people around them, both in terms of spirit and in capabilities. Leaders have to spend one-on-one time with their direct subordinates. Such quality time spent with them helps to develop their thinking, stretches them and moves them out of their comfort zone.

5. Be open-minded.

After working in Asia for 20 over years, he has observed that Asian leaders tend to develop and value relationships more and this is a trait which Western leaders often neglect when they fly over here for business. However, authority in Asia is often based upon experience and seniority, rather than performance. He recommends that Asian leaders who have neglected performance over maintaining harmonious relationships, to keep a critical balance between pushing for performance and building the relationship at the same time.

“My belief is that developing a leadership style based on Western and Asian practices will help. From what I’ve seen, when Asians set aside traditional rules of interaction during a crisis, they collaborate in a very impressive way,”he concludes. “If leaders make the effort to discipline themselves and grow their teams, I am optimistic that they can sustain performance at a high level and go on to greatness.”

Story Adapted from The Business Times: Recognising Toxic Leadership