Stepping Up

By STEVE COATS – Published in Personal Excellence October 2001

Have you ever listened to the coach or players of a team that has just “won it all?” Whether it is victory in the championship game, first place in a music competition or a debate tournament, or winning a major sale, there are always some very familiar remarks made about the achievement. There is talk about the great teamwork, staying focused on the goal, the hard work, and usually a reference or two about luck or getting some good breaks. But listen closely and you will hear one other factor, that is a cornerstone of winning teams. You will hear about how at crucial times, certain people “stepped up” and played beyond everyone’s expectations. And getting people to step up their level of contribution is one of the hallmarks of great leadership.

Mention the name Vince Lombardi, and even people who don’t care much about sports widely recognize his ability to lift his players and teams to greatness. Perhaps because of its visibility in our world today, there is an abundance of sports-related examples of leaders bringing out great individual efforts from their players.

But follow some of the greatest of the world class symphony orchestras and you will find similar examples. The musicians will often speak of how their individual conductor raises them up to a new level of performance, and somehow brings out the very best in the entire ensemble. An orchestra does not win world acclaim simply by playing the music the same as everyone else. It requires great performances inspired by great conductors.

It is relative easy to identify what stepping up means in the previously mentioned situations, but what does it mean in the workplace. It often means doing something important that has never been tried before. It means tackling something headlong that is difficult, uncomfortable or risky. It is about actively standing up vs. idly standing by. It is about telling the truth and challenging the way people think, instead of merely letting poor decisions and poor performance rule the day. And it means never, ever giving up, even when conventional wisdom and organizational politics say you should.

As a leader, getting others to step up requires a couple of things of you. First, you yourself must demonstrate your willingness to step up to the hard work, and to increase your own level of performance. Then, you have to create an environment for your people to be able to do the same. Remember, it is through your peoples’ accomplishments that your legacy as a leader will be determined.

Starting Point

The place to start is to be truthful with yourself about your own actions. Therefore, to what extent do you:

step up to new challenges vs. remaining comfortable

appropriately push back, opposed to blindly following unclear or nonsensical directives

speak up when there is pressure to remain silent

confront disagreements

stretch yourself

push yourself to become better

Think about these! Do you find that you usually say yes, even when no is the correct response? Do you frequently agree publicly with someone higher, but uselessly complain about his/her incompetence in the safety of a small group of close colleagues? Are you able to look a poor performer right in the eye and without sugarcoating, provide honest, candid feedback? Would your people have evidence of two or three examples during the past few months, where in fact you have stepped up in tough circumstances?

Stepping up is hard, even exhausting work. It requires one to reach deep for the will and stamina needed to breakthrough both the physical and mental obstacles that are blocking the path. It is even harder when it involves relationships with people. Many are willing to step up to work harder on tasks or activities by putting in more hours, making more calls or producing more “quantity.” Less are as eager to step up to issues that might require confronting or dealing with other people. And leadership is always about people and the relationship you have together.

Impacting Others

Now be truthful with yourself about your leadership of others. To what extent would your people say they feel supported and encouraged to try new things beyond their proven capabilities, to push back and speak up, to confront you or others, to stretch or push themselves? Based on your behavior, would they say these actions are more likely welcomed – or punished? You need to know.

You may be fortunate enough to have surrounded yourself with people who are more naturally able to consistently rise up. Congratulations! But do not count on that tendency to continue forever. Most people, even those predisposed, need a compelling reason to step up, and it is up to you as the leader to help people discover and deeply believe in that compelling reason.

People, individually or in teams, do not achieve extraordinary things because they have to; they achieve them because they want to. They courageously step up and relentlessly drive themselves because they are totally committed to the dream or goal they are pursuing. Commitment provides the fuel to do a lot of things. It is the seed for greatness.

Fostering Commitment

So the pertinent leadership question is, “how do you get people more committed to, and thus more able to step up to the things you are convinced should be done?” Here are some things you might find useful to think about and act upon accordingly.

Always remember that people must be inspired to step up, not forced to. Extraordinary performance requires passion and excitement, which just cannot be mandated or commanded. Those can only be inspired. In what ways would your people say you are inspiring them toward great accomplishments? Or might they instead use other words to describe your approach with them – like pushing, driving, cajoling, manipulating, perhaps even humiliating them into stepping up.

You must all be totally committed to the same outcomes. That is a very important statement, so you might want to read it again. It means the dream must be shared by all, not just with all. You might be able to force people to listen to your personal goals, and comply with your desires, but don’t be surprised when their best efforts are put forth on their own goals. Make sure you are aligned and together.

You must be willing to let go and give your people more control. Everyone I have ever asked wants more control over his or her own life – and so do your people. You cannot swing the bat for them. People must step up in their own way, not in your way, and they need a sense of control to do that. You must have some faith in their ability to deliver.

You need to build a strong relationship with each person you are leading. People do not step up for complete strangers, they step up for people about whom they care. If your associates do not believe you care about them, they will likely not go out of their way to stretch themselves for you. Let them know you care – about each of them individually, as well as their collective accomplishments as a team.

Stepping up is an emotional issue, not an intellectual one. People can rationalize all day the need to turn it up a notch, but to be successful, it almost always requires the unexplainable power of the heart. Are your people committed enough emotionally to be able to perform beyond their wildest dreams? If not, you need to help them find more ways to become more deeply devoted.

Your people need to be absolutely certain that you are in the boat with them. I heard a manager tell his people one time, “I will not let you fail.” His actions supported his words and the people felt more powerful, more equipped to excel. Let your people know you are there for them.

People will step up for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it is because something needs to be done, and no one else can or will take it on. But even more often, it is because they do not want to let someone else down – like their teammates, their boss, or more personally, their spouse or children. Never underestimate the strong, perhaps inherent desire that many people have to help others – those to whom they feel a strong attachment. Give people the opportunity to rise up and make a difference for others, and they will.

(Source: Personal Excellence October 2001)

Copyright 2001 International Leadership Associates