All of us have been employed in environments that are challenging. Sometimes it’s a co-worker, immediate supervisor, or customer that seems to make every interaction painful. But if the tone is set at the top—and it is set at the top—leadership style does influence culture and impact organizations positively or negatively, and it matters.
When the influential leader drives outcomes through positive interactions, individuals buy in and own their responsibilities in moving delivery beyond expectation. On the other side of the same coin, the influence can be so destructive that the tension regularly disrupts process, causes pain points that are felt across the organization, and can cripple functionality.
As a kid, I had the unique experience of playing ice hockey in LA (Yes, hockey existed in Los Angeles before Gretzky and others brought big money and Hollywood notoriety to the NHL in Southern California. There was Rogie Vachon, Marcel Dionne, and some kids in the San Gabriel Valley doing our best to win, on ice.) From age 5 to about 14, I played. My friends and I became good enough to compete statewide and in a few out-of-state tourneys (we even went to Canada once!). We had grown up together, played as a unit, and delivered a lot of excitement and just as many wins together.
During part of those formative years, we had a coach who invested time and brought us in to be apart of something bigger than ourselves. He introduced team building on and off the ice, included us in his family outings, and used our time together not only to teach us the game and how to play, but also to learn about us. He actually taught my teammates and I how to water ski, and the first time I rode a Harley was with him and the team. That coach made us believe that together, we could learn and do anything, compete at any level, and beat anyone.
In my last season, we got a new coach, he was French Canadian and came with great credentials, discipline, and promises of molding young champs into leading candidates for greater heights and maybe even a path to college and beyond. Unfortunately for me, one of the first conversations he had with me, one-on-one, was to inform me that people who look like me don’t play hockey. He promptly began training my replacement and limiting my playing time. Others also felt the change. Long-time leaders were harshly disciplined in front of the whole team for small errors, and we began to feel the difference when the coach was on the ice and when he wasn’t. It was like a weight hovered over us, we were disciplined and focused, even productive, but it was no longer fun. We had a relationship, but it was not productive or instructive; it was transactional. We lost the team magic and began to get splintered off into utensil-like clusters, each small cluster only serving its immediate purpose and nothing more, asked to contribute until its usefulness was no longer relevant and cast aside for whatever other immediate need arose. We lost our luster, the game lost its charm, and we lost most of our players to other league teams. I left for HS football, but the lesson, as shared here, I carry with me to this day. I still love the sport; I never skated again.
A leader, no matter how effective, experienced, or revered, can dismantle a winning formula in a single season by introducing negativity into the work environment. They may be able to put butts in the seats and deliver a few wins, but over time, that toxic environment causes players and partners alike to abandon their relationships or respond in kind. This translates directly to internal process, outcome delivery, and client confidence. As leaders, we influence the environment we own, consciously or not, and that influence has bottom line impacts. Creating positive outcomes and leading an organization that buys in and wins requires:
Investment in your team. Time, energy, and knowledge transfer between team members of all levels rapidly translates into productivity and creates awareness that the contribution from every individual makes the whole organization win.
Learning that works in both directions. Our genuine desire to learn creates valuable insights that offer you, as a leader, the chance to know your team members' strengths and contribute to their development, based on recognized needs.
Creating autonomy where it’s available is a game changer. If team members can contribute their talent and own their outcomes, they will improve overall team performance.
Sometimes a single brief encounter is enough to leave an impression that cannot be erased. I am not sure, but perhaps the fact that government and corporate leaders now rely on me and my teams to help design and deliver inclusive environments is an outcome of these types of moments with leaders of all stripes. Positive or negative, you influence every life you touch, and in your work environment, the way you lead is just as important as the fact that you lead.