When Kevin Allen started in the business world, the recipe for leadership was clear: “You had to talk tough and tell people what to do,” he recalls. As a self-described “sensitive and shy kid,” he originally figured a top corporate role “isn’t going to happen for me.” But on the contrary, Allen – founder of the business growth consultancy re:kap and a successful Madison Avenue advertising veteran – made a name for himself in business development through an entirely different approach. “I invented my own way, connecting with people on an emotional level,” he told me in a recent interview.
In his new book The Buoyant Leader: A Leadership Course for the Rising Star, Allen details his leadership philosophy. “The post-war, hierarchical organizations were, and for many still are, top-down,” he says. “I chose [to highlight the concept of] ‘buoyancy’ because it’s the exact reverse. By understanding the very heart of your people – what they yearn for, and your ability to ignite and inspire it – your people make you float. It’s bottom-up leadership.”
He cites one example early in his career, which he dubs “The Case of the Missing Cutlery.” Sent to investigate why an airline’s silverware was disappearing (back before the days of disposable plastic), Allen discovered the dishwashers were throwing it out because it couldn’t be properly cleaned and they were fearful of punishment if they returned dirty forks and knives. He says, “Instead of yelling at them, I realized this was a worthy act. No one sets out to do a crappy job. You have to ask, ‘what kind of environment have you created?’”
Indeed, he says, “leadership is not telling people what to do. Even if you have the title, people will determine whether you’re worthy of being followed. All over the world at 6 o’clock, people go home to the person they love and say, ‘Guess what happened today?’ It’s a definitive moment. Whether you’re galvanizing that moment [as a leader] is a measure of greatness.”
The days of command-and-control are long gone, says Allen: leadership is about the consent of the governed. “No one wants to have fingers snapped in their face,” he says. “It’s about human worth.” To determine whether you’re truly a buoyant leader, he suggests, look at “who does most of the talking: you or your people? Inspire your people, but let them develop [the plan for] how they will support your initiatives.”
He cites the example of Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts, who “keenly understands this kind of thinking. She has created the miracle of Burberry’s turnaround and growth on the strength of understanding the importance of her internal community, the power of shared culture, and inspiring her team to fly.”
Here is Allen’s six-point plan for becoming a more “buoyant leader.”
1. Pick a promising team and create an experiment that, once it is successful, you will feel comfortable replicating.
2. Work with the team to establish a “Real Ambition” – a seemingly impossible goal that ignites all of them toward its achievement.
3. Coach them in the development of their collective culture and credo.
4. Articulate role clarity.
5. Establish a clear accountability system.
6. Be their source of inspiration and guidance.
“You’ll be amazed,” he says, “at what they do.” What are your strategies for becoming a buoyant leader? How do you inspire and guide your team?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on July 30, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.