• Leadership means more than financial results.
• Praise creates a self-reinforcing cycle that promotes better performance.
• The leader must serve the team and enable its growth.
After 15 years in leadership roles in different organizations and countries – in conflicts all over the world with the ICRC and UN, working with key decision-makers at the World Economic Forum and now as CEO of World Vision Switzerland – I have observed many similarities in the way effective teams are led. These hold true whether on battlefields or in boardrooms.
All these experiences have taught me a lot about failure, mistakes, success and ultimately how to be a humble leader. I have realized that leaders can shape organizations way beyond results, with the potential to make them places of connection, appreciation, inspiration, growth and purpose. Let me share three findings with you:
Saying thank you goes a long way and almost always pays back. This seems obvious, but over my years in the humanitarian sector, I repeatedly experienced a strange contradiction. We were very kind to the people we served, but were often hard on each other (in the team). Due to the constant pressure and drive to make a difference, humanitarian leaders often forget that teams and their members also need care.
I learned my own lesson while leading countrywide field operations in the Central African Republic during the civil war. The violence was brutal. Our teams worked beyond their capacities. Catering to the desperate needs of thousands of displaced persons, I did not pay enough attention to the needs of my teams. In light of the dire situation around us, our personal issues seemed irrelevant. But I learned the hard way when I came close to a burnout.
I took swift action and implemented the following: In order to make sure the team kept on delivering, we optimized the performance of the teams by analysing and improving processes. This allowed team members to take time off in between missions. We also started celebrating even the smallest successes, learned how to express our appreciation to each other and how to give constructive feedback. In a chaotic world, these were some of the simplest and most effective ways to keep team spirit alive.
Ultimately, we managed to keep the operation running, and a sense of gratitude set in. We served thousands of displaced people and still managed to keep a sense of optimism. Extensive studies on humanitarian aid workers, carried out by Dr. Liza Jachens of Webster University have shown that imbalance between effort spent at work and rewards received in return is strongly associated with negative health outcomes such as burnout and heavy drinking.
As a leader, I also started to praise much more. Achievements deserved feedback and praise, not only in the annual review but right on the spot. Bestselling author and CEO Shawn Achor, in his book Big Potential, compares praise with a self-reinforcing cycle that primes the brain for higher performance: The more we praise, the more success we create. And the more successes there are, the more there is to praise.
Research from Wharton University found that fundraising callers performed 50% better after a pep talk from their director, who told the fundraisers she was grateful for their efforts. And it’s not the only study to find that gratitude helps people find meaning in their job.
2. Be a leader who serves
Without a top-performing team, going above and beyond for the people at the centre of our work is not possible. No CEO is worth anything without a “dream team”. “Servant-leaders have the humility, courage and insight to admit that they can benefit from the expertise of others who have less power than them. Therefore, leading means basically empowering others and helping them grow,” writes Daniel Cable in his book Alive at Work. The more the CEO serves the team, the more the team will be loyal to the organization.
Adam Grant, Professor at Wharton business school, describes the most successful leaders as givers, sharing their time and efforts generously. But while they’re generous, they should be careful not give in to every request. Warren Buffet famously said: “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
3. Challenge and facilitate growth
Work routine in conflicts was a rare occurrence, and many challenges were unprecedented for leaders and their teams. Though this was draining long-term, it also had a motivating effect on team members. Being reactive, inventive and creative is part of how we should work; it also means team members are much more involved and empowered. Even now, based in peaceful Switzerland, I continue to live that “sense of urgency”, driven by purpose and impact.
Recently, we lost a highly valued team member who told us when resigning: “I did not see enough growth opportunities here.“ It was painful, but I realised that we needed to do more, not just in terms of the career ladder, but also to meet the desire to grow. Employees want to feel that their career is advancing by learning more and extending their skill set.
Therefore, the leader should challenge them, but also help them to grow, while keeping the needs of the organization at the heart of all actions. Adam Grant, in his book Give and Take, compares a leader to a friend: “In the deepest sense of the word, a friend is someone who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself, someone who helps you become the best version of yourself.”
For a committed leader, exploring, learning and the receiving and giving of feedback should become an integral part of work culture. At my organisation, World Vision, we have created the concept of the VisionLab, which allows any employee to set the team a work challenge. These can range from increasing team efficiencies to new marketing campaigns. Through design-thinking workshops, staff are encouraged to elaborate solutions. Furthermore, by mixing together people from different teams, we make it a team-building exercise at the same time.
Today, the demands of innovation and productivity challenge us to transform ourselves into more adaptive and responsive human beings. This is true for anyone in the organization but even more so for leaders.
Do you realize the one thing these three findings have in common? In general, they would be regarded as soft skills, but I would call them essential human ones. They ultimately lead to successful, collaborative, innovative and happy teams. Optimizing performance starts with the “why” and ”how” of organizations and not necessarily with the ”what”.
Being a humble leader means being the “captain” in both stormy and quiet waters, celebrating every sunset and sunrise. We serve more than our tasks – something we bear in mind at World Vision as we focus on the most vulnerable children, their families and communities in 100 countries around the globe.
Potential action steps
• Thank quickly and generously.
• Celebrate success and emphasize the efforts of the team and not necessarily individuals.
• Write a Gratitude Journal every day (a few lines will be enough).
• Adopt a legacy mindset: “What if I had to leave my position in 18 months?”
• Make a strength map of yourself and the team, and then see how it can be used and shuffled to create the best-performing team.
• What does it mean for you to be the “motivator in chief”?
Challenge and facilitate growth
• Adapt a coach mindset and help your management team to do the same. Include everyone in decisions.
• Listen, listen and then listen more. Learn all about active listening.
• Exploring, being curious, learning and receiving and giving feedback should become an integral part of the work culture and not just an “add-on”.
• Create regular sessions as a “safe space” where the entire team, or individual team members (from all different levels), can speak to the leader freely about ambitions, inputs and where they can share feedback (negative and positive).
• Run workshops on effective and constructive feedback-giving.