Rita Burgett Martell
Rita Burgett Martell
Rita Martell is an Organizational Change Leadership Consultant who leads enterprise-wide transformation projects and provides change management coaching to C-level and Senior Executives in Fortune 500 companies globally.
She is the author of two books: Change Ready! And Defining Moments.
She operated her San Francisco-based consulting firm, Strategic Transformations for 25 years and currently lives in Nashville with her husband Dan and Golden Retriever puppy Jackie.
How to Be a Leader People Want to Follow
“Leaders don’t create followers; they create more leaders.” — Tom Peters
I was a shy sixteen-year-old, afraid of my own shadow, in the summer I worked at our local hospital. The Director of Nursing was a strong loud woman dressed in the white starched uniform nurses wore back then. She intimidated me more than the doctors. Whenever I saw her coming, I would turn and go the other direction.
One day she stopped beside me, put her arm around my shoulder and said: “I want you to look at my shoes.” I immediately thought something was wrong with mine and expected to be reprimanded. Instead, her words taught me a valuable lesson in leadership that has served me well throughout my career.
She said: “when I get up in the morning, I put my shoes on the same way you do – one foot at a time. You have no reason to be afraid of me. The only difference between us is that I have a different title. You could be running this hospital one day and I would be working for you.”
In that moment she became a leader I no longer feared.
She became a leader I wanted to follow.
“Wow,” I thought. “There’s nothing wrong with my shoes? She doesn’t think I’m young and stupid? She believes that someday I could be a leader as successful as she is.”
She did what effective leaders do. She saw potential that I couldn’t see, and a future that I couldnn’t imagine. She made me feel important and I didn’t want to disappoint her. I wanted to rise to the level she believed I could achieve.
In that moment, my self-image changed from a shy sixteen-year-old to a young woman confident she could achieve whatever she desired if she was willing to work for it. My title reflected my current role, not my future possibilities.
That experience influenced the type of leader I wanted to be. I didn’t want to limit my employees based on their title. If I saw potential to do more, I created opportunities for them to stretch and grow in their current role and prepare for their future role. I wanted to be a leader that people wanted to follow, not one they feared. I agree with Jack Welch who said:
“A leader’s main job is to develop talent.”
- Think about the people you’ve worked for throughout your career.
- Describe one who is an example of the kind of leader you aspire to be. Leader A+
- Describe a leader you never want to work for again. Leader F
- Think about how you felt around Leader A+ vs. Leader F
Was there a big difference in how you saw yourself when you were around Leader A+ vs. Leader F?
Leader A+ gave you honest feedback, viewed mistakes as teachable moments, and left you believing you’d do better the next time.
Leader F’s criticism made you feel diminished and fearful you’d be fired. You became reluctant to offer ideas. Why put yourself in the position of feeling stupid again?
Leader A+ believed in you before you believed in yourself. They saw potential beyond what you believed was possible for you and trusted you enough to allow you to stretch beyond the limits of your job description. They took a risk on you; and you didn’t disappoint.
Leader F wanted you to stay inside the box of your job description.
Leader A+ didn’t need to be the star and created opportunities where you could shine. They were thrilled when you accomplished what they always knew you could. They believed their role as leader was to develop future leaders.
Leader F had all the answers. They may have even taken credit for yours because your job was to make them look good, and theirs was to keep you in line.
Leader A+ focused on results. They trusted you to do your job in the way that worked best for you and didn’t need to control how or where you did it.
Leader F wanted you to trust them without questioning but showed little trust in you, needing to control where you were and what you were doing during your eight-hour workday.
I hope you’ve avoided the Leader F experience and only worked for A+ Leaders, because we need someone to look up to in today’s world who doesn’t look down on us.
Much has been written about employees trusting leadership but little about leadership trusting employees. Isn’t trust a two-way street? How can you expect to have employees blindly trust you if you don’t show trust in them?
COVID proved that employees can be productive, adjust to rapid change, and achieve results working remotely, when trust works both ways. During a time of great uncertainty, organizations executed a change to remote work that would have taken months to achieve without the sense of urgency COVID created.
Now that we’re operating in a post-COVID world, have we reverted to a command-and-control style of leadership by telling employees they must come to the office 3 to 5 days a week, and tracking if they do? Are we monitoring the time they spend logged onto their computer to verify they work an 8-hour day? What message are we sending?
Command and control aren’t leadership. They’re a fear-based dictatorship that worked in a production economy. Fear stifles innovation and without innovation, businesses won’t survive in today’s competitive marketplace.
As leaders, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to develop the next generation of leaders who can make the world a better place for generations that follow.
As Brian Tracey says: “Be the leader that people would follow voluntarily,
even if you had no title or position.” Show trust in your employees and you will become a leader they want to follow, a leader who creates leaders.