Earlier this year, United Airlines became the subject of multiple controversies due to the way its employees treated customers. Those employees received a lot of criticism, but the real root of the problem goes much higher than United’s workforce.
Related: How To Become an Effective Leader
The employees, as it happened, acted to enforce policies without thinking. They didn’t take initiative or rely on their own judgment. The fact is, a culture built on principles and values — rather than blind obedience — might have empowered those employees to behave in an appropriate way. But perhaps they needed stronger role models because, in a company setting, people model what they see.
Defining “true leadership”
If United Airlines had practiced “true leadership,” the company likely could have avoided the public outrage.
True leaders are the pinnacle of what they expect from the people around them. And by setting an example, true leaders encourage their people to aim for that. The most powerful example of a true leader I can think of is a warring tribal chief back in the days of the frontier wars between Indians and settlers: A chief drove everyone else to be better for the sake of the tribe and modeled what that looked like.
Richard Branson is a great modern-day example of true leadership. He knows the culture he wants to curate and makes sure his companies have it. Before this group of companies was sold, interacting with any Virgin company — whether you flew Virgin America, shopped at Virgin Records or worked with Virgin Mobile — you almost felt like as though you were working with Branson himself.
In his companies, it was always clear that people understood leadership and culture and held it in high regard.
Practicing true leadership: boss vs. leader
Leaders need to behave in the way they want their employees to behave, and to continually ensure they have what they need to do that. At my company, our first priority is to always check in with people and make sure they have all the resources they need.
Here are some other ways to practice true leadership:
1. Pull the rope.
I love the image of a “leader” versus a “boss” during a tug of war. The leader is at the end of the rope, pulling along with his team. A boss is yelling at everyone else to pull the rope harder.
In a study highlighted by the Harvard Business Review, 38 percent of global leaders polled said that a good leader cultivates a feeling of failure and success as a team. That’s the difference between a “boss” and a “leader.” Leadership is about doing the job, not just telling others how to do it.
The leaders of Daimler Greater China exhibited this characteristic last year when they removed a manager for insulting Chinese people. The incident was a private situation, but Daimler felt it didn’t reflect well on the company to have high-level leadership behaving this way. After all, if high-level staff could do this, so could everyone else.
The takeaway? If you want your people to work hard, work hard yourself. Whatever you expect of your team, take it on yourself and set the example. Never stop pulling the rope.
2. Be the provider.
A true leader supports the team with time, energy, thought and actual physical support. Whatever needs to happen to keep up with your people, provide: additional meeting opportunities, QA sessions, informal happy hours — whatever it is. Be the support system for your team’s success.
At Hawke Media, we want to give people a comfortable place to work hard. That’s why we call our office the most comfortable place to be uncomfortable. We have couches everywhere and dogs running around, and now that the team likes hanging out there, we expect them to get things done.
We also provide constant education. One study by Rypple found that 23 percent of employees surveyed said they wanted career development opportunities, and a true leader will listen to that. We provide that through initiatives such as “Hawke U” every Friday. My business partner reads a book each week and then presents his takeaways in an hourlong presentation: short, sweet and highly effective.
3. Become a “personal trainer.”
Just as a great personal trainer gets more from clients than those clients may have expected of themselves, a true leader does the same. Never hire or fire based on experience because things change too fast. Instead, see yourself as a coach for your team.
We hired someone out of a retail store background who was smart but had no experience in marketing, but she quickly became a top-notch Facebook advertising manager, grew a team of Facebook advertisers and then became our VP of operations, running a team of 80 people. This took her just three years.
We got her there by hiring for attitude instead of experience. Then we sat with her for months, basically having her work hand in hand with a trainer. In the early days, we mentored her in tactics, and today we continue to teach her what we’re learning so she can take on more responsibility.
True leadership is about helping employees become the best people they can be. You do that by setting the example, doing the work and training others to come along with you — beside you.
With these tactics up your sleeve, you’ll never end up in the news, the way United did.
Erik Huberman is the founder and CEO of Hawke Media, a Los Angeles-area outsourced digital CMO agency for companies like Evite, Bally Total Fitness, Verizon Wireless, Eddie Bauer, Red Bull and many other brands. A serial entr…