Traits of a true leader

Ben Gibson explains that leadership can be defined simply as ‘positive influence’.

I love such a short, powerful description of a life-changing responsibility and opportunity. Our role as leaders is to leave individuals, teams and organisations in better shape than when we found them. We do that by motivating and inspiring them beyond giving orders and exercising authority gained through title. Real leadership exists only if people follow when they would otherwise have the opportunity to not follow. Many managers misconstrue leadership with simply exercising power and giving orders.

Global life and business strategist Tony Robbins defines leadership as: “The ability to inspire a team to achieve a certain goal. It’s usually discussed in the context of business, but leadership is also how you, as an individual, choose to lead your life. The true leadership definition is to influence, inspire and help others become their best selves, building their skills and achieving goals along the way. You don’t have to be a CEO, manager or even a team lead to be a leader. Leadership is a set of skills – and a certain psychology – that anyone can master.”

Effective leadership plays a pivotal role in the development of a safety culture. According to SafeWork Australia’s definition: “Leaders are people who influence the attitudes and behaviours of others. Sometimes they do this through their formal role and sometimes by their personal influence.

“A positive leadership and management style can improve an organisation’s safety performance. There is strong evidence that performance is improved when organisations address safety risks along with other important business risks.”

Whether in our personal or professional lives, leadership and the opportunity to lead are all around us and deeply ingrained in the actions we take. Every decision we make provides the opportunity to lead and operate above or below the line – with our thoughts and behaviours derived from our intent, values, passion and commitment.

AFL junior coach, father and grounds manager at Scotch College in Melbourne, Michael Smith, keeps his leadership pretty simple: “I have learnt a lot from coaching kids through the various age groups. I like to apply the same principles when managing my team here at Scotch College. Develop, empower, mentor, trust. I live by this. I like to reinforce that I’m doing this regularly.

“As a coach, I draw a lot of pleasure from watching my players mature, improve as players and as people, and I feel privileged to play a part in this. Ultimately, I see my job is to make them better players, better teammates, better people, how to be competitive, how to be compassionate, show empathy, how to be a good winner and how to be a good loser, and to always remain humble and hungry. “I believe these are all important life skills. If you haven’t got their hearts, you haven’t got their minds.”

Effective Leaders

Let’s look at some behaviour of great leaders we have observed across the turf industry. Not necessarily in any particular order (although lead by example is a favourite), but the following is a summary of key leadership attributes we have seen having the biggest impact.

Lead by example: A leader lets their actions, communication, punctuality, quality of work, attitude, enthusiasm, professionalism, respect and empathy for others show how they want their team or colleagues to behave. Instead of “Do as I say not as I do”, a better maxim would be “Do as I say and do”.

“I have always felt that leadership is about showing the team the behaviours, standards and culture you expect from them through your own actions and decisions,” says Richard James, superintendent at Adelaide’s Kooyonga Golf Club. “Leading by example doesn’t mean you have to always be on the tools with the team or in the bunkers. But rather showing them with your work ethic, commitment and communication that you are dedicated, and also maintaining the standards you set for the team.”

“I have always felt that leadership is about showing the team the behaviours, standards and culture you expect from them through your own actions and decisions.” – Richard James, Kooyonga Golf Club

Lead with integrity: Decisions and actions must come from a place of integrity that align with the leader’s personal values and the goals of the team. Anything less and the damage to culture, level of trust and communication will be immense.

Understand that leadership is about people: Leadership is primarily about the why, some of the how, and less to do with the what. Our ability to connect, build relationships and establish trust with others is fundamental in our ability to inspire, engage and lead.

Have solid values that they openly communicate: Leaders let people know what they stand for, who they are, and why they do what they do. A leader who doesn’t limits their ability to inspire and engage others.

Do what is right, even if it is tough: Strong leadership requires difficult decisions and even tougher action. Leaders have the commitment to the vision, their teams and to ethical behaviour to perform difficult actions on behalf of the organisation. Reluctance in this area is one of the biggest failings in leadership.

Have the courage to have the difficult conversations: I have often heard the maxim, “Those without the courage to lead shouldn’t.” At times, leadership requires difficult conversations, meetings, performance management, staff termination, conflict, criticism … the list can go on. An effective leader has the courage to have these conversations on behalf of the team and the shared vision and goals.

Are consistent and use systems: Every effective leader we have worked with in the sports turf industry has a plan and a system to implement it. An important pillar of trust building in leadership is embodied in the idea of consistency. Effective leaders are consistent in their behaviours, communications and values. Providing teams with systems and consistency gives them faith in your competence and influence as a leader.

Are human, admit mistakes and are willing to show vulnerability: A great leader shows their team they are human. They share experiences (successes and failures) to benefit the development of the team and each individual’s future success. This is not an overload of personal information or inappropriate sharing. Rather it’s a conscious choice to help others in their journey and empathise with them, explaining that you have also been there, had some falls, and share how you turned things around.

Are strong communicators: How and when we communicate with our team can be the difference between OK and great. It’s important to find the right medium for each team member. Communication frequency is paramount to ensuring effective consultation and an ability to bring them into the vision.

Have the confidence to give and ask for feedback: Effective leaders go beyond the “my way or the highway” approach. Good leaders have the courage to offer their team constructive feedback – based on fact, not opinion. Importantly, they regularly ask for feedback on team goals and individual performances. Strong relationships within the team can lead to powerful feedback that will both help you and the team improve.

Listen (actively): Let’s not check our phones during a conversation or meeting. Ask relevant questions that show you are actually listening to your team. Use responsive body language to show you are interested in their opinion and input. Active listening is a compelling and powerful leadership tool, but one which is often not practiced. Think of the people in your life who actually listen properly to you. How do you feel about them?

Are always composed: A quote attributed to French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte is: “The first qualification of a general is a cool head.” Remaining level-headed in times of adversity is one of the most important attributes of leadership. Often, the worst that can happen is not the event itself, but the event and you losing your cool.

Are inspiring, with an infectious attitude: People are engaged when they listen to a leader speak. They can hear the passion in the voice and the commitment to the vision and goals. It is hard not to buy in to that momentum and be inspired to contribute. Anyone who has had the privilege of spending time with Pat Wilson of Pambula Merimbula Golf Club on the NSW South Coast will know his energy and enthusiasm are second to none. A conversation with Wilson leaves people motivated, energised and feeling positive. Consider how your actions could have this impact on others and how you can support them.

Use technology and are open to innovation: A great leader is open to change and doesn’t let ego or past behaviours get in the way of the team’s improvement or success. Leaders are constantly looking for new ideas and opportunities to help the team improve. The range of technology and software available to the turf industry provides huge opportunities to improve all aspects of turf management. No need to live on your device, but there is ready access to bucket loads of industry knowledge, data and information.

Work inclusively and provide opportunity to achieve more: Leaders don’t play favourites, give anyone the cold shoulder, nor exclude others from opportunity. Good leaders give everyone a shot at being their best and operating above their pay grade. For the handful of mistakes or failures, you will be blown away by the other 95 per cent that exceed your expectations by a mile.

Leaving a Legacy

Most importantly, effective leaders create more leaders. If our role in leadership is to positively influence and inspire others to achieve and be the best version of themselves, then a significant part of leadership focus should be on development, mentoring and success of those in our team.

“I always thought that golf course superintendents and probably most turf managers usually find themselves being accidental leaders,” says former Royal Melbourne Golf Club superintendent Jim Porter, now senior turf agronomist with ETP.

“We end up in these roles because of our expertise, knowledge, education and experience in preparing turf surfaces. But for most facilities, this requires staff. In my situation almost 31 years ago – at age 29 with a staff of 19 that grew to 40 or more for tournaments – this was a significant challenge.

“My education and previous employment did not properly prepare me for this most important part of the job: staff management. In many ways, I believe this still to be the case today. Leadership education and training is critical for the managers and is now being incorporated into current-day education. And current turf managers need to help develop the industry’s future leaders. For example, introduce 2IC’s and 3IC’s to all facets of staff management.”

This article was originally published in the Australian Turfgrass Management Journal

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