The workplace of 2022 is markedly different from the workplace of 2000. In many ways, in fact, today’s workplace is different from what people experienced only a couple of years ago.

Consider what we’re now seeing: Millions of workers are experiencing pandemic burnout. Many sectors of our economy are struggling with labor shortages. Supply chains are disrupted. People are re-examining and reprioritizing their values. In recent months, record numbers of workers have quit their jobs to explore new opportunities.

For leaders, this shifting landscape requires a renewed focus on leading and retaining high-performing teams.

David Robinson has some ideas that can help. Today the CEO of a performance improvement company, he’s a former fighter pilot and TOPGUN instructor in the U.S. Marine Corp. His book is The Substance of Leadership: A Practical Framework for Effectively Leading a High-Performing Team.

Rodger Dean Duncan It’s been said that great leaders inspire others to raise their own bar. What’s the key to inspiring that kind of self-management?

David Robinson: I’ve found that the key to inspiring others to set high standards for themselves and their team members is getting them emotionally invested in mission success, and then empowering them with a sense of ownership for achieving that success. Of course, this is easier said than done. But at the end of the day, it boils down to trust.

In order for your people to become emotionally invested in your mission, they have to trust the “why” behind it, and they also have to trust that you care about their welfare. In order for them to feel empowered with a sense of ownership for mission success, you have to trust them to help you figure out how to achieve your goals. In other words, inspiring and empowering leadership is a two-way street of trust. Inspiring starts with the team buying into the leader. But empowering starts with the leader buying into the team.

Unfortunately, many executives have a hard time “letting go” and trusting their people. So they end up with inspired team members who want to raise the bar, but aren’t empowered to do so. I’ve learned that the most effective way to develop this mutual trust as a leader is to focus on “what” you need to do to accomplish your mission, and then allow your people to figure out the “how.”

David Robinson

Duncan: You say management is process-centric while leadership is people-centric. Please elaborate.

Robinson: My definition of leadership is “the art of inspiring a diverse group of people to work together toward a common goal.” Getting people to work together toward your mission is what leadership is all about. Process is merely a means for getting the work done.

Don’t get me wrong—it usually takes both to achieve a goal. But people want to be led, not managed. They want to be inspired by a vision that makes them feel like they’re a valuable part of something larger than themselves, not just part of a process. That’s why I encourage leaders to consider the mantra: “Lead people, manage process.”

I wish I would’ve learned this earlier in my professional career. Early on, I actually had it backwards. I had a tendency to be completely focused on mission and process, and I saw people as merely a means for getting the work done. That was poor, uninspiring leadership. It didn’t work. Thanks to a good mentor, I eventually learned that it’s our people’s emotional investment in our mission within an overarching culture of trust that makes all the difference in developing a high-performing team.

Duncan: Drafting a “Leader’s Intent” document is something you recommend. What are the ingredients of such a document, and how do they help bring clarity to a leader’s day-to-day mindset and practices?

Robinson: “Leader’s Intent” is simply high-level guidance for your team that creates directional vision. Going back to your first question, it’s a tool that can help leaders define “what” needs to be accomplished and “why” it’s important, while empowering their team members to figure out the “how.”

It should be tailored for your team, and I recommend addressing six key areas:

  • Mission (task and purpose)
  • Vision (what success looks like)
  • Values
  • Goals over the next six to twelve months
  • Priorities
  • Expectations (both what your team can expect from you as a leader, and what you expect from your team)

I also recommend keeping it clear and concise on one page to help keep your team on the same page, so to speak.

Many of the executives I’ve helped develop a “Leader’s Intent” say it’s been valuable for them day-to-day in four ways. First, it provides clarity about what’s important to them as a leader. Second, it generates alignment within their team around organizational goals and objectives. Third, it empowers their team members by articulating “what” needs to be accomplished and “why,” while enabling them to use their own initiative to figure out the “how.” Finally, it establishes the foundation for consistency, especially when facing challenging leadership decisions.

Duncan: What do you see as the most important things leaders can do to inspire their people to genuinely embrace and champion the organization’s mission?

Robinson: I’ll tell you a story that illuminated the answer to this question for me. After I graduated from TOPGUN, I was assigned to a Marine FA-18 squadron where I was responsible for training all of the new fighter pilots in the unit. One of them was a junior captain named Patrick, who led 50 Marines in one of our aircraft maintenance divisions. It didn’t take long for all of the other pilots in the squadron to realize Patrick’s Marines would follow him anywhere and do anything for him.

One day after we finished a flight together, I sat down with Patrick and asked him, “What is your leadership secret?” Without hesitation he responded, “There is no secret. It’s really simple in theory, although harder in practice. Bottom line, your people have to know beyond a doubt that you care more about their welfare than your own.”

I sank down in my chair because I couldn’t look in the mirror and say that about myself at the time. But I was determined to change because I aspired to be the kind of leader that could inspire people like Patrick did. Thanks to him, I learned over the next two decades that if you take care of your people, they will do whatever it takes to accomplish your mission. That was one of the most valuable leadership lessons I ever learned.

Duncan: What can leaders do to ensure that the performance feedback they give to team members inspires rather than discourages? 

Robinson: I had the privilege of spending 25 years in an organization with an intense feedback culture. We debriefed performance in excruciating detail after every flight in Marine aviation, and I’ve been in more than 3,000 debriefs.

One thing I learned as a flight instructor is the importance of creating a learning environment during feedback. That starts with an atmosphere of continuous improvement, rather than pointing fingers and placing blame. When someone you’re providing feedback to feels attacked psychologically, cortisol floods their brain and self-protection behaviors kick in. This neurochemical response almost always results in defensiveness and discouragement, rather than inspiration and improvement.

To inspire team members during feedback, ensure they know you have their best interests at heart and that you trust their intentions. Empathetically ask questions like, “What would you do differently next time” to help create a sense of ownership for self-improvement. And share examples of your own shortcomings to build emotional trust.

Duncan: Conflicts are inevitable on most teams. What do you see as the leader’s role in resolving them?

Robinson: We typically think of conflict as a destructive dynamic that should be prevented or resolved. But conflict can also be constructive, and therefore something leaders should create. I think it’s important for leaders to think about conflict holistically.

Since destructive conflicts are inevitable on any team, I see a leader’s primary responsibility as modeling what good conflict resolution looks like. Although avoiding and compromising are the most common techniques, effective conflict resolution occurs when both parties collaborate and work together to resolve the issue through an intentional combination of assertiveness and cooperation with a goal of win-win problem-solving.

On the other hand, conflict can also be constructive. Research suggests that the top predictor of high-quality decisions is the quality of the debate preceding the decision. Quality debate stems from having people on your team with diverse perspectives who have conflicting views and feel psychologically safe sharing their honest opinions. Leaders can sharpen solutions by ensuring they have a diverse team, creating an environment where team members feel empowered to share their opinions, and occasionally teeing up differing ideas to push the team’s thinking in order to generate productive discussion and debate.

Duncan: What can people do to “influence up” without benefit of position or title?

Robinson: This is one of the most common questions I’m asked in my leadership consulting work. Almost everyone wants to know how they can get their boss “on board” so they can get things done more efficiently and effectively in order to create greater impact.

I always offer five techniques.

First, focus on how your objectives support organizational goals. It’s hard for someone to say no when you can tie your objectives directly to their goals.

Second, since pushback often stems from risk aversion, emphasize how the benefits outweigh the costs.

Third, problem-solve with your boss to promote buy-in by integrating their ideas with yours.

Fourth, if they’re not inclined or don’t have time to problem-solve with you, use an “unless directed otherwise” approach by sending them an email briefly explaining the background and concluding with, “Unless directed otherwise, I intend to …” This demonstrates your initiative and gives them the option to either approve (either explicitly by responding or implicitly by not responding), or ask you to come talk to them about it – which creates an opportunity for you to problem-solve together.

Finally, if your boss is “difficult” and you don’t believe any of these techniques will work, ask questions that may spark them to rethink their own views.

Duncan: As a TOPGUN pilot, you learned to “take the who out of the debrief.” Tell us about that.

Robinson: Being a TOPGUN instructor was one of the most rewarding tours in my military career. Our mission was to bring the best fighter pilots, weapons officers, and tactical controllers in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to our aviation training center of excellence in the northern Nevada desert and teach them how to execute with high-performance teamwork so they could teach the same lessons to others.

Following every training flight, we debriefed for several hours. One thing I learned very quickly was  the importance of taking the “who” out of the debrief to foster an environment of learning and continuous improvement. In other words, we focused more on roles in the flight, and less on the person performing the role. Rather than point fingers at who did what wrong, we stuck to what happened, why it happened, and how the team could execute better next time.

Going back to your earlier question about how to provide inspiring rather than discouraging feedback, this technique kept everyone in the “receive mode” rather than the “deflect mode.” Whenever someone put the “who” in the debrief, you could almost see an invisible deflector shield come down in front of them while the look on their face said, “I can see your lips moving, but I can’t hear a word you’re saying,” and at that point the learning stopped.

Duncan: What’s the one piece of advice you would offer leaders who want to elevate their leadership to the next level?

Robinson: I recommend what I call the leadership paradox—the more you let go and give selflessly to your team, the more performance you will get from them in return. And I think there are two key ways leaders can let go and give to their team.

First, empower your team by defining the what and the why, but let your people figure out the how. In your first question, we talked about how empowerment is such an important part of the two-way street of trust that enables your team to raise their own bar. Second, take care of your people by putting their welfare ahead of your own.

As we discussed in the question about how to inspire your team to embrace your mission, if you take care of your people, they will do whatever it takes to accomplish the mission.

This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.

Rodger Dean Duncan