What does it take to be a smart leader?

What does it take to be a smart leader?

Business leaders are always searching for ways to make their teams more productive. They might try team-building exercises, efficiency strategies or ‘perks at work’ like retail discounts.

But there’s a simpler way to improve team performance, one having nothing to do with employee benefits or cutting costs; it’s about creating the right environment.

Broken windows theory

In 1982, two criminologists James Q Wilson and George L Kelling writing in the ‘Atlantic Monthly’ sought to explain the link between environment and serious crime. 

Wilson was a government professor at Harvard and Kelling was a professor in criminal justice at Rutgers University.

Together they created a concept called ‘Broken Windows’ – an insight into how your immediate environment impacts behaviour and wellbeing.

‘Consider a building with a few broken windows’ wrote Wilson. ‘If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for the vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside’

Their research suggested how making small changes to the environment adjusts behaviours away from the illegal towards the acceptable. These ideas were put to practical test when they were famously implemented by the New York Chief Commissioner, William Bratton. Within just a few years of adopting the ‘Broken Windows’ approach violent crime and robberies in New York fell dramatically.

So, what’s the link between criminology theory and leadership? 

You’ve got it. Good leaders build great environments.

Sweat the small stuff

The little things matter here, sweat the small stuff. It’s not just about nice pictures, comfy furniture, or a great coffee machine. An environment where everyone says ‘hello’ in the morning automatically creates a feeling of support and inclusivity (and you’d be surprised how many teams don’t even do that).

Simon Sinek, author of ‘Start with Why’, says Put a good person in a bad environment, and they tend to perform poorly, and vice versa. This is why we have leaders, because leaders are responsible for setting the conditions to create a safe environment’.

Smart leadership means understanding the environment your team needs to thrive.

Be the gardener

It’s a concept talked about in ‘Leaders: Myths and Reality’, a book by General Stanley McChrystal best known for his command of US Joint Special Operations Command in the mid-2000s. 

McChrystal understood the success of his team was a direct result of the environment he created. In other words, the environment created the behaviours he was after. 

McChrystal explains his approach to leadership is like being a gardener.

The gardener doesn’t do the growing, their job is to tend and nurture so the plants grow and thrive. By creating an environment of care and support the garden becomes resilient and radiant. 

Looking back at his leadership style McChrystal said the more I worked on creating an environment and giving people freedom, the better the results. The temptation is to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization. But as a gardener you enable rather than direct. 

The running of any successful business means nurturing the whole environment, from the employees to the culture and the systems. So, rather than being a mechanic, the person who tries to fix everything, be the gardener, the smart leader who develops the work environment consistent with empowering the confidence of your people to take ownership of their decisions and their results. 

Richard Newman
Richard Newman

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