Let's face it, leadership can seem like a jigsaw puzzle, but it’s actually more like jazz - it’s all about rhythm and improv. 'Unleadership' is my song of preaching your values, setting examples, and eating last. Like jazz, it breaks a lot of the rules of more classical techniques. If you're a business professional with leadership aspirations or a current leader looking to switch up your sound, this one goes out to you. Let's dive into the rhythm of ‘Unleadership’ together and tune in to the six tenets that have helped me find the right players, arrange the right pieces, and conduct a digital marketing agency; effectively my jazz band.
How I Learned to Mentor Myself and Develop Unleadership
What Is Unleadership?
‘Unleadership’ is my term for the leadership style I’ve developed over the years working in tech and digital marketing. It’s an adaptive leadership philosophy best defined as the practice of knowing when to pilot and when to glide. An unleader knows when to let go and let things take their natural course, and when to step in and take control. More than anything, though, it’s about treating your team members with the respect they deserve and being a good human.
Who Am I and Why Am I an Unleadership Expert?
I'm Steve Krull, a fervent believer in the power of unconventional leadership. I’ve been navigating the turbulent waters of the business world for the better part of two decades, co-founding Be Found Online (BFO) and serving as its CEO. In this time, BFO has blossomed into an award-winning digital marketing agency recognized by Ad Age and Inc. 5000.
I’ve spent many hours reading traditional leadership styles and consuming content. Over time, I realized much of what you might read in business magazines is targeted toward corporate executives more than small business owners. After decades of hands-on experience handling high-performing teams, I have honed my skills as an ‘unleader’ through living it in real-time. Here are the six core leadership qualities that are key to ‘unleading:’
The Six Tenets of Unleadership
- You Are The Example
- Preaching & Living Your Values
- Presenting Pathways
- Get Together
- Lean On Your Mentors
- Leaders Eat Last
Of course, I’m not just developing unleadership. I live it every day! I follow its principles within our team and continue to witness the transformative results it can bring. A more holistic, human, and effective approach to leadership is possible. It starts by setting an example.
Unleadership Tenet 1 - You Are the Example
What Does It Mean to Lead by Example?
Leading by example uses your own behaviors and habits to inspire your team or employees to do the same. You model as the template for your people to follow, proving the boundaries or responsibilities are doable. It’s the difference between a general who never leaves the planning room and one who leads the charge into battle. Leading by example can build trust and teamwork within a group while fostering accountability.
Leading by Example in Group Settings
Some of the most important unleadership tasks in a meeting or group discussion are those that, when done right, people might not even notice. In group settings, it’s important to know how to shift between presenting and conversing, and vice versa. Setting the tone through your opening remarks, open-room cross chat, or group icebreaker questions can be a great way to get things feeling less presentational and more conversational.
I always encourage taking a moment to collect ideas and opinions from the group. You want your whole team to feel comfortable speaking up, and creating that feeling is your job!
You’re responsible for more than the ambiance, of course. Conveying your message (good or bad) in the right way is key to unleadership. More than just hearing what you’re saying, your team has to actually understand it. Plus, you don’t want to come off as overbearing or condescending in the process. Use straightforward, intentional language. Keep any metaphors short and easy to parse. Authentic leadership should come from an authentic place.
We’re all lucky if we understand even a small corner of this massive world. An effective unleader needs to defer to the knowledge heads of their groups, those who have studied or experienced your focus topics. Toss these folks your softball and hardball questions and let them swing for the fences.
Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. What matters as an unleader is committing to finding an answer and ensuring accountability for doing so.
Unleadership Sub-Tenet: "Every day you didn't is another day you can't"
This is something I started saying to myself back in 1999 when I was jumping from my Fortune 500 job into the .com revolution. While I didn’t land soft, the people I met and the experiences I got out of the project were irreplaceable. It took discipline to make that change though, and this phrase helped me stay committed. With any new habit, it’s essential to keep the rhythm going. Otherwise, they may slip away. It’s hard to break a habit, but it can be as tough to make the good ones stick. Think of it this way, every day you don't work out is another day you can’t improve.
Unleadership by Example in One-on-One Conversation
Talking to one team member is way different than talking to the whole group. You’re going to be able to tailor your message and tone easier, but you’ll have to make sure you’re giving your conversation partner your full attention.
Focus on eye contact. It’s one of the most basic ways we can communicate that we’re listening or that we know what we’re saying. People can often pick up on floundering through statements based on eye contact.
Adjust your mannerisms depending on how well you know the person. Bill Clinton had three levels of greeting: a handshake for those unfamiliar, a handshake and a gentle touch on the same arm with his other hand, and a handshake into a light hug for those he was most close to. Come up with a similar range of greetings for your team based on your comfort level and boundaries.
Use active listening techniques. Show your conversation partner that you’re processing what they’re saying. Nod, make confirming movements, and respond in-kind. Repeat important portions of what they’ve told you back to them.
Unleadership in Business Governance
Always consider how the employee will feel about any decision, but keep the business top-of-mind. How will a change of management affect productivity and morale? How will a change in software systems affect the macro and the micro?
Everyone's Looking at You
No matter what you believe or feel, everyone's watching to see what you’ll do. Some folks are curious, some are angry. Some are weary, wary, confused, or uninterested. Some are engaged, some are burnt out. Act accordingly. Remember, chances are that you’ll never get more than 70% of the team to lean in any one direction.
Unleadership Tenet 2 - Preaching & Living Your Values
As an unleader, your values should be clear, communicated often, and shared by your whole team. Your values will determine how you engage with customers, clients, and employees alike. More than defining your values, you have to communicate them in language that resonates and inspires.
Practice What You Preach
Your values can be inspiring, but they don’t mean anything if you don’t follow through on them yourself. Lead by example and embody the values that you preach. Don't shy away from hard conversations about mistakes made or the need to step up and take ownership of a situation. The greatest failure of a leader is hypocrisy.
Let’s take, for example, former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. While his country was enduring a debt crisis, he enacted massive austerity measures like wage cuts to the public sector and tax increases. At the same time, Papandreou took luxury vacations and appeared at lavish parties. That’s hypocrisy. It destroyed his reputation, and certainly didn’t help Greece.
Trust and Unleadership
Trust is vital for a thriving, effective team. Inconsistent actions can discourage and demotivate. Hypocrisy undermines trust, creating a disconnect between a leader and their team.
Belief and Unleadership
Belief in a leader's vision fuels motivation, fosters unity, and inspires dedication to shared goals. When a leader's actions contradict their values, it can compromise this belief.
Respect and Unleadership
Respect is a two-way street. It’s maintained through consistent, honest, and transparent actions. Hypocrisy disrespects your team and damages their authority.
Unleadership Sub-Tenet: "Get out of your own way!"
Once you have gathered all the knowledge to make an informed decision, approach it with confidence. Trust in your abilities. Believe that you’ll get the results you’re after. Even if the outcome isn’t what you expect, you can rest easy knowing you made a strong effort.
Values Development and Enaction
Unleaders involve their team members in developing their own collective values. This instills a meaningful connection to the work.
Why Is Engagement Important?
When leaders actively engage, it sends a powerful message that everyone matters and their contributions are valued. This fosters a sense of belonging and purpose, and encourages team members to engage back. This positive feedback loop promotes continuous improvement and dedication. An organization driven by shared values and collective success will thrive.
Always Make Decisions With Your Values in Mind
Staying true to your values when making decisions isn't always the easiest or most affordable choice. At times, the quick or cheap solution may not align with personal or organizational values. Unleaders choose to follow their values even when it's challenging or costly. It’s an investment in the long-term health and integrity of your leadership and organization.
Unleadership Sub-Tenet: "Life should be 2/3 self-amusement."
Being an unleader requires emotional self-awareness, even in stressful situations. It's critical to pause, reflect, and perform an emotional 'self-check'. Are you still happy with who you are? Are you enjoying your work? Imagine leading a high-stakes project with delays and setbacks. The pressure is mounting, deadlines are looming, and stress levels are high. This is the most worthwhile time to take a step back and self check. By making sure you’re still enjoying what you’re doing and taking time to reflect, you can make sure you make the best decision moving forward.
Finding Guidance from Your Team
An unleader's journey isn't always clear. Moments of uncertainty may arise, causing you to question if the chosen path aligns with your values. In these instances, embrace unleadership by reaching out to your team. Engage them for guidance and perspective (see Tenet 4 - Get Together).
Applying Values With Your Clients
Your collective values have to apply to your clients as well. For instance, transparency as a core value means openly discussing project challenges, timelines, and progress updates. This fosters trust and honesty, building strong client relationships based on reality rather than temporary satisfaction. Upholding innovation means consistently bringing fresh ideas, challenging norms, and pushing boundaries to deliver exceptional results.
Selecting Clients Based on Your Values
Selecting clients as an unleader means focusing on mutual respect and collaboration through shared values. Create a list of values crucial for your clients. These may include things like responsiveness, open-mindedness, respect, kindness, integrity, and adaptability. When these traits are present, relationships flourish, nurturing innovation and growth.
On the other hand, it's crucial to recognize 'red flag' traits that could disrupt the partnership. These may include being overly dominant, unresponsive, inflexible, or demanding. Such traits can strain the relationship and impact team morale and performance.
Unleadership Tenet 3 - Presenting Pathways
Life is full of pathways, but some are hidden by the bushes. We often need someone to clear the shrubs aside for us. That’s where you as an unleader come in with a machete!
Presenting pathways is all about giving your team members options to navigate their professional and personal journeys. Understanding that each individual has a unique path is critical. As an unleader, you don't dictate that path. You offer possibilities and encourage your team to choose what aligns with their skills, ambitions, and values. It's about coaching, nurturing, and fostering adaptability and innovation.
Professional pathways aren't always linear. Diversity brings richness and fosters growth. As an 'unleader', it's crucial to provide team members with new opportunities, within or outside the organization. You're not just managing tasks, but facilitating potential.
Offering diverse opportunities cultivates leaders, boosts personal and professional growth. These experiences broaden horizons, enhance skills, and foster achievement. By doing so, you invest in individuals' future and create a dynamic work environment. This embodies unleadership, nurturing talent and fostering an adaptive leadership culture.
The Power of Diverse Opportunities
Provide career opportunities like promotions, departmental switching, and lateral movements to motivate your team, boost morale, and enhance productivity. Balancing workloads among team members means a healthier work environment and fosters flexibility. By adopting these practices, you cultivate a team of future leaders dedicated to growth.
Unleadership prioritizes holistic development, so it’s important to provide pathways to personal growth and fulfillment. For instance, volunteering! Giving back to the community cultivates empathy, civic-mindedness, and broadens perspectives.
Promoting a healthy PTO (Paid Time Off) policy encourages employees to recharge, come back with renewed energy, and reflect work-life balance. Conferences and seminars provide ongoing learning, networking, and keeping up with industry trends. They inspire thought leadership and fresh ideas. Sabbaticals, though uncommon, offer chances for reflection, pursuing passions, or continuing education.
Regular socializing with colleagues outside of work fosters camaraderie and strengthens relationships. This sense of community promotes collaboration and harmony. It's the essence of 'unleadership' - recognizing that life outside work enhances life at work.
Unleadership Tenet 4 - Get Together
Leadership in a vacuum isn’t leadership at all. Think of the cold, distant boss who you only communicate with through a computer screen and never makes an effort to learn about their “subordinates” on a personal level. At the end of the day, leadership isn’t about being a dictator but rather building relationships with those around you.
Tenet 4, “Get Together,” is all about fostering genuine connections and creating an authentic atmosphere that encourages collaboration. This can look a lot of ways, but it shouldn't look like a chaotic mess. In other words…
Don't S**t on My Desk
In business, challenges are inevitable. But not every turd should end up on your desk. Unleaders efficiently regulate, mitigate, and delegate these issues. They also know when to use which method. We’ll talk more about this in Tenet 6.
Regulating involves setting clear boundaries to prevent problems from arising ahead of time. Mitigation, on the other hand, focuses on reducing the severity of a problem at hand.
Delegation empowers team members by entrusting them with specific responsibilities. It's not about passing the buck. Effective delegation maximizes productivity and allows your team to develop new skills.
Opening Decision-Making to the Group
Opening up the final say to the team gives everyone a stake in the outcomes and makes folks feel included. It also brings a diverse range of ideas, perspectives, and experiences to the table, meaning you’re more likely to find innovative solutions.
How to do it effectively? Ensure every team member feels heard and valued. Regularly conduct meetings or brainstorming sessions, encourage contributions, and show appreciation for different viewpoints.
When to do it? It's ideal for decisions that have a broad impact on the team or when you're seeking fresh, innovative solutions. There might be times when, for the sake of efficiency or because of the high stakes, leaders need to make the call. Unleaders understand the difference between empowering their team and abdicating their responsibility.
Unleadership Sub-Tenet: "Take the good with the bad an live in-between."
Not all situations come perfectly packaged. There will be challenges that may seem less than ideal. However, my leadership philosophy encourages us to approach each situation optimistically and seek positive outcomes. That way, when truly ideal situations occur, they are even more appreciated. Imagine a trusted vendor unexpectedly proposing to become a long-term client. Instead of focusing on complications, a true leader sees this as an opportunity to strengthen business ties.
Steering the Ship, Not Dictating the Course
Though all final decisions may rest with you, approach decision-making as if your idea or opinion is NOT the ultimate determinant.
Rather than directing the team and dictating how to get from point A to point B, incorporate input from your colleagues. As an unleader, you understand that it takes more than just one person or perspective to reach the destination.
Encourage ideas and open dialogue; listen carefully and objectively consider all perspectives. By taking into account other opinions, even if the course of action in the end isn't what you initially proposed, you'll be able to make more informed decisions.
Caveats to Group-Decision-Making
- Choosing which decisions are appropriate with which to engage in collaboration.
- Strategic decisions benefit from collaboration, allowing diverse perspectives and innovative solutions. However, decisions involving sensitive information or requiring immediate action are best handled by leadership.
- Keep an open mind about what paths a decision-making conversation may take.
- What if the conversation gets controversial? A good unleader is prepared to turn conflict into fuel for innovation. What if your team is stuck? Can you find a way to take them down a different avenue?
- If the decision of the larger group isn’t truly in the best interest of the organization, how do you navigate that messaging?
- When the group's decision isn't in the organization's best interest, navigating messaging becomes delicate. As an Unleader, use an adaptive leadership approach to respectfully articulate why the chosen direction may be counterproductive. Encourage open dialogue and challenge your team to reconsider their viewpoint.
- Ask More - Tell Less.
- Creating a culture of unleadership requires active listening, and an active effort to participate in finding the solution instead of providing one. When your team comes to you with questions, it can often be helpful to ask them questions in return.
Unleadership Sub-Tenet: "Money can be replaced, time and energy cannot."
Understand that not all decisions lead to expected financial outcomes. Instead of thinking of them as failures, view them as stepping stones towards better results. The real triumphs lie in the time and energy devoted to each decision and project. As an unleader, value the journey and learning it brings, not just data or money.
Brainstorming Vs. Problem-Solving
Brainstorming is the process of generating ideas and solutions, fostering new perspectives and exploring possibilities. Problem-solving, on the other hand, is a methodical approach to solving existing problems. By combining both techniques, an unleader can bring a fresh perspective to any situation.
As an unleader, brainstorming can be used to uncover solutions or insights that you may not have thought of before. This is a great time to start in front and move to the back. Make sure that when you slide back, you take your voice with you. After setting the table, leave the group to lead themselves to show you trust them. Make sure your questions are truly open ended so that you don't lead the group to a preconceived conclusion. Narrow your questions as you approach a solution.
- "What areas of our project could be improved?"
- "What could be fixed in our delivery timeline?"
- "How can we streamline our validation process?"
Bring issues to the table that impact the whole organization. Don’t keep all decisions to yourself or your leadership team. Collective problem-solving fosters ownership and involvement in shaping the organization. Take “Sarah,” CEO of a tech company, for example. She implemented an "Open Forum," where employees present ideas and concerns directly to the leadership team. Her team felt heard and empowered, and Sarah came away with a new direction.
Unleadership Tenet 5 - Lean on Your Mentor(s)
Isn't It Ironic?
To become a better unleader, you need to seek leadership! It may sound like a paradox, but it's a healthy reality check. It's easy to think that striving to be an unleader means we don't need advice or guidance. But seeking counsel and being open to learning sets us apart as adaptive leaders. It humbles us to remember that regardless of title or station, we're always students in life's grand classroom. By turning to mentors, we dodge hubris and stay focused on the bigger picture.
Unleadership Sub-Tenet: "Keep smiling and keep walking forward."
Everyone needs a mentor, not just leaders. There will be times when you feel lost and uncertain. In those moments, mentors help us navigate through the storm, keeping us on track. They remind us of our values and purpose. They help us keep our chin up and upper lip stiff, no matter the odds. If you’re without a mentor and find yourself in a sticky situation, keep up the good fight and do what you think is right and remember, breath, take your time and be a good human.
Unleadership Does Not Mean Un-Mentorship
You can mentor others while maintaining leadership. Mentorship is key to unleadership, in fact, offering valuable wisdom and guidance from our experiences. It fosters camaraderie, creating a supportive culture where everyone works together for the common good.
Leadership is about guiding a team or organization towards a shared goal through strategic decision-making, effective communication, and inspiring others. Mentorship is a one-on-one relationship where an experienced individual guides someone less knowledgeable.
Unleadership combines leadership and mentorship. As an unleader, you make strategic decisions, inspire your team, and guide individuals in their personal growth journeys.
Unleadership Tenet 6 - Leaders Eat Last
Leaders can lead from the front and from the rear. During tough times or challenging conversations, leading from the front is important. Taking time to discuss difficult topics with the team shows care for their well-being and builds trust and understanding. Leaders who choose to lead from the rear understand that not all decisions are made in meetings. Some conversations are best had in private. And, frankly speaking, not every conversation requires your voice.
Make More Leaders
Think about Calvin's transmogrifier from Calvin & Hobbes. Using the “device,” Calvin could transform himself into various creatures. By fostering an unleadership culture, you can turn the workplace into a leadership transmogrifier. Team members take on leadership roles, offer innovative solutions, and navigate their own challenges. It requires patience, dedication, and belief in each individual's potential. But when it happens, your team members step up, lead by example, and embody unleadership to create a sustainable cycle of leadership development.
What To Do With All of This?
Learn Outside of School
Unleadership emphasizes learning, adapting, and growing beyond institutional walls. Traveling, volunteering, starting a small business, or pursuing hobbies can enrich understanding and enhance effective leadership.
Listen and Hire People Who Can Achieve Goals
In the realm of unleadership, listening takes on a whole new dimension. It's about understanding the thoughts, ideas, and concerns of team members in an environment of open communication. Hiring is also crucial, focusing on emotional intelligence in those willing to learn and grow, exhibit resilience, and achieve goals.
Join a Leadership Community
Small Giants is a community of leaders who prioritize greatness over growth. They understand that success is not about scaling up; it's about nurturing a culture of excellence. They focus on creating meaningful work and a lasting impact on communities.
Conscious Capitalism promotes values-based decision making and conscious leadership. It's about balancing purpose, people, planet, and profit to create a holistic organizational culture that prioritizes stakeholders' needs.
These organizations demonstrate the power of adaptive leadership, showing that business can be a force for good when unleaders step in.
It's Possible With Anyone, Anywhere
Unleadership is not limited to one field or type of team member. Whether you're a seasoned executive or a new leader, the principles of unleadership are applicable. Embrace them, embody them, and instill them in your team culture to drive meaningful outcomes. It's about how you lead, not who you are.
Be Found Online - Unleadership In Action
At Be Found Online (BFO), we embody the philosophy of unleadership in our integrated approach to digital marketing. Visit my profile to read more articles about BFO, leadership, and unleadership. At BFO, we help businesses navigate the digital landscape, align marketing efforts with core values, and achieve strategic objectives. Contact us to start your journey towards conscious, value-based decision making in business.
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As CEO/Co-Founder of BFO, Steve excels in ‘unleadership.’ (his word) Steve believes in collaboration and leading by example; remaining vulnerable and open to new ideas, accepting feedback…and doing good things.
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