Cheerleading is not leading
If you’ve ever been a cheerleader (or even just watched cheerleaders) you’re familiar with the excitement they can add to an athletic event. Their performance adds to school spirit, team spirit and both the crowd and the athletes respond positively to the enthusiasm they generate. Cheerleading also has a place in business.
The encouragement and reward offered by cheerleading in the workplace really is a piece of the whole employee reward and recognition process (which is itself part of building employee engagement). The importance of telling your employees "good job!" can’t be underscored enough. We all need to that; and we all need to hear that our efforts were appreciated even if the outcome was not as successful as we would have liked.
What we need to know, however, is that cheerleading is not leading. The cheerleader may make us feel great about our work and our performance, but that isn’t going to get us to recognize if we’re making mistakes or that our efforts are not focused on the most productive things to help us succeed. The coach is the one analyzing our game and helping us to refine and focus our skills to the best advantage.
It’s time to cheer when your staff has done the best they can, given their "all" or need some encouragement to get to the finish line in a difficult or long project. You can cheer them on when their spirits are low and when circumstances are beyond their control. At these times, hearing that from their "coach" can be invigorating, or at least validating. And of course, cheer when they’re on the right track and something special happens and the outcome is better than expected.
On the other hand, it’s time to lead when your team is headed in the wrong direction. When they are not working together, are not coordinated in their approach, you need to lead. You need to coach them to recognize when an avoidable mistake has occurred. You can make it a teachable moment so these mistakes won’t happen again, but it needs to be recognized. In times of crises, you stand up, lead, and use your expertise to coach them through it.
As leaders and managers, we’ve all been frustrated at times with employees who just don’t seem to get it, and are not performing up to expectations. At times like this, it’s easy to look outward and find an excuse as to why that’s happening, and just as easy to think that if we just encourage them more, they’ll turn around and all will be well. Cheering them on in this case probably won’t be the best choice, though. You need to find out the root cause of the problem and help turn them around. You need to be a leader, or least a manager, to do this in order to truly support them through a rough time.
Leading in this case may mean ensuring your expectations for their performance are clear, and that they fully understand those expectations. It may mean ensuring they have the necessary skills and resources to perform the job you need them to perform. As the coach, it’s your job to analyze their game and refine and focus their skills and performance for the best possible outcome.
And leading in situations like this may mean helping an employee to better apply their skills in some other area of the organization or even outside of the organization. Sometimes that’s the hard truth.
To steal a line from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, sometimes you need to stop looking out the window and look in the mirror. Collins describes a Level 5 Leader as those who look out the window to give credit when things go well, but look in the mirror when things do not go so great. Bad leaders do the reverse. They look out the window when things fall apart in order to place blame and then bask in the light (look in the mirror) when things go well.
I’m not saying that good leaders can’t be cheerleaders, but good leaders know when to cheer and when to lead; and they know the difference.