Do you Walk the Talk, or just Talk it?

By client

The regularity of this statement, which I am sure all you leaders are now sitting nodding your head in agreement with as being “so true”, has made me question whether the real issue lies with the leaders and not your employees. What if the real fact is you are demanding from your team, an outcome or tasks you are not prepared to do yourself?

My conclusion from almost 25 years of interviewing Executives is that often when people are promoted into leadership roles, so they get to sit in the corner office, they think they have made it and don’t have to work as hard. The reality is you have to work harder as a leader because your team expects you to show the way. In fact, they demand, these days, that you lead from the front with your effort, commitment and willingness to undertake any task.

I never cease to be amazed when I question people about their leadership style, the response, almost universally is, that I lead my staff by talking with them, setting the direction and getting out of the way for them to deliver. I wonder whether the real issue arises that in getting out of the way to let them deliver, they don’t observe what you do or are delivering. I am not for one minute advocating doing their jobs for them, but challenge you to question yourself as to whether you are modeling and living the behavior, effort, values and achieving the output you desire from your team. If you aren’t and your team isn’t delivering, step back and just query whether you need to change your leadership style, or maybe the perception of it, so that you win the trust and respect of your team that they will be inspired to deliver for you.

Simon Hickey, the former CEO QANTAS International, and Freight, spoke at a dinner several years ago for me. However, it was an example he spoke about during his time as Chief Financial Officer for Lendlease Americas, that the old saying “you have to walk the talk, not just talk it” sprung immediately to mind. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Simon was sitting in his office in the Metlife building above Grand Central station in downtown Manhattan, when he witnessed the second plane flying into the World Trade Centre. Now that in itself was harrowing and frightening, but as the leader of the office, Simon had to take control. This was in the days before disaster evacuation manuals contemplating a multi-site terrorist attack had been written, but action and decisions were required. So Simon immediately evacuated the office (as it was a prime terrorist target in NYC), sent everyone home and planned to establish a temporary head office from his house in Connecticut to manage the growing situation. There were people on project sites in NYC that needed to be accounted for and managed, including people in the World Trade Center and on building sites opposite and then other offices across the USA in the developing situation, including opposite the Pentagon.

That afternoon Lend Lease was asked to assist with the rescue mission at the World Trade Center and so the best project managers in NY were sent to the site. Despite expecting further attacks, Simon realized that he could not ask others to risk their lives and stand back from a safe distance. He spoke with his wife, agreed on an action plan and then went and got on a train back to NYC to be with his employees. His rationale was very simple, “I could not ask my team to place themselves in potential danger, without being prepared to do the same thing myself, and so the decision was simple”. At least in his mind it was, he did not expand as to the result of his decision, but suffice to say Lendlease won the contract for the removal of all debris from Ground Zero. I think it was in no small way because the team was inspired into action through the thoughtful leadership demonstrated, but more importantly through the actions of their Australian leader who exemplified “walking the talk”.

So next time you are talking to your employees and extolling them to greater heights, inspiring them to action, just remember if you want true engagement and are setting them a difficult task, be prepared to walk with them. I promise you, if you demonstrate to your team that you are prepared to walk with them and lead from the front, the results your team will deliver will be exceptional. Walk the talk, don’t just talk about it and your team will follow as they will be inspired.

Let me know whether you agree.

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