One of the most influential leaders of our time, Nelson Mandela, was considered the father of Modern South Africa. And among his illuminary quotes is one that equates a great leader with a shepherd. In his autobiography, Mandela writes:
“He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
Over 16 years ago, as a newly minted founder to my form-building startup, I was enthralled by the idea of being a great leader. Inspired by world famous entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, I wanted my team to feel that same sense of motivation I did when watching acclaimed CEOs speak.
But over time, my thinking shifted. I found that working from a place of ego wasn’t the key ingredient to building a successful business. Instead, I began to prioritize creating a positive atmosphere — one where people felt both encouraged and supported. This meant stepping down from my own soap box and passing the mic over to my team.
Don’t Focus On Being a Great Leader — Focus On Building a Great Team
My company, Jotform, has grown to have hundreds of employees and over 18 millions of users. It’s an unlikely story: We were a bootstrapped startup and opted for growing slowly and steadily instead of trying to reach the top of TechCrunch.
What I remember the most about those initial years was the sense of family and belonging we shared — something I didn’t want to lose. So, rather than becoming the perfect leader, I focused my energies on building an amazing team — on ensuring people felt appreciated, valued, and also felt a sense of autonomy.
There are numerous reasons why I recommend this kind of leadership style, but one of the most important is best described by Harvard Business Review contributor Linda A. Hill who notes that: “Leaders can encourage breakthrough ideas not by cultivating followers who can execute but building communities that can innovate.”
Sure, it’s an enticing idea — having followers who are inspired by your eloquent and motivational speeches. But as Hill explains, this won’t necessarily lead to the spark of new ideas.
I’ve read before that a great leader isn’t one who makes others believe in their own greatness, but someone who allows others to see the greatness in themselves. And that’s exactly how you build a great team — by seeing people’s natural potential and giving them the resources and support to develop their gifts.
“Leadership requires an understanding that if your people succeed, you can succeed,” writes Forbes Councils Member, John Lowe. “If you lead your people to achieve their best, you won’t have to climb the ladder.”
He adds: “You will be carried forward on their shoulders. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes.” In other words, creating an innovative and harmonious community starts with you.
Below I’d like to offer a few tips for how to pass on the torch and foster an amazing team.
1. Cultivate a culture of trust.
Do people stop talking when you enter a room? Are there rumors spreading around like wildfire? If you replied yes to both of these questions then it’s likely that your culture has turned toxic and there’s a lack of trust and respect. With those components in place, it’s unlikely you’ll have a thriving business. And you’re not the only one who is taking note.
According to new research by the Greenlight Research Institute, 74% of workers don’t agree that their team is accountable for shared goals, and 81% note that they’re also not operating anywhere near their full potential.
But how do you engineer trust in the workplace?
Harvard Business Review contributor, Keith Ferazzi, believes that promoting greater collaboration is one of the key ingredients for cultivating trust. “In focusing so heavily on what it means to be a great leader, [companies have] often lost sight of what it means to be a great team.”
He adds: “It’s past time to right the imbalance — to recognize that the transformation of an organization must begin with the transformation of its teams.”
2. Collaboration is key.
Your first step as a leader is to assess your workplace culture and notice behavioral patterns. What’s positive and what’s negative?
Developing a level of scrutiny and observation can help you create more collaborative practices among your team.
“Too often members have an unspoken agreement to avoid conflict, stick to their individual areas of responsibility, and refrain from criticism in front of the boss,” writes Ferrazi. “And they may be willing to take advice only from higher-ups, not recognizing the vital role of peer-to-peer feedback. All that needs to change.”
I couldn’t agree more.
In fact, I believe that scaling a business requires constant reorientation. Remember, culture is encoded behavior. As Ferazzi points out: “Leaders and team members must commit to a new social contract to escape mediocre or merely good performance, accelerate innovation, and unleash growth.”
At Jotform, it’s vital for me to encourage collaboration. And one of the ways I do this is by instituting Friday Demo Days where teams can showcase their projects in a judgment-free atmosphere.
I’ve observed the impact of this practice, as colleagues are often thoughtful to one another and note each other’s strengths during presentations.
You see, when you don’t have the spotlight on yourself as a leader, you can focus on fostering more camaraderie, which in turn, creates a snowball effect of kindness among team-members and supervisors alike. This last trait, in my opinion, is the one essential principle that will transform your company.
Because ultimately, greater teamwork comes down to people trusting and respecting one another. But even more than that, having a leader who is both willing and humble enough to be guided by his crew.
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