Real leaders give people what they need. Not what they want

This post is for anyone who manages people, or who hopes to in the future. It will probably draw some flak too, but that’s because I don’t really believe in generational differences. I think it has been largely hyped and exaggerated. I have had plenty of employees who fit into the so-called ‘Gen Y’ age bracket. And I don’t see the negative characteristics often ascribed to this ‘generation’. Mostly, I see hard working, highly focused individuals who want to do well, have fun and make a difference. And many of them have been with us years, defying the job-hopping Gen Y stereotypes.

Often, too much talk of how to ‘manage the generations’ leads to skipping over some of the difficult things that need to be done when managing people. And I reckon those things need to be done no matter who you are dealing with.

One of the ways I define great leadership is that the leader actually cares. Bureaucrats do not make leaders. Administrators don’t make leaders either. But before we go any further on the subject of “caring” for our people, a key word of warning on this.

Unfortunately there is too much hype nowadays about the idea that leaders must show concern for their teams. Apparently you have to give a figurative cuddle of support to ‘Gen Y’ staff on the hour or they will resign and go Llama farming in Peru. Codswallop. You cannot fake the fact that you care about the people in the business. There is nothing worse than a manager returning from the latest interpersonal skills training program with “concern” for others beaming from every orifice. It’s not real and everyone knows it’s not real.

Real leaders don’t need training programmes to convince their staff they care. What’s more, real leaders empathise with the people they lead. By this I mean the leader knows what a recruiter does, knows how hard it is and knows the inevitable peaks and troughs.

I have always found it key to any success I have had as a manager of recruiters, that I have worked a desk myself. I feel the recruiter’s pain to this day. I have had shocking months, offers turned down and phones slammed in my ear.  So I do understand the bruises the job will give you. I also like everyone I work with on an interpersonal level, so I really do care when someone is having a bad month or day.

But some times the empathy you need to have is of the “tough” kind.


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Tough empathy means giving your consultants what they NEED not what they want.

That means often telling people things they don’t want to hear, or setting work practices and goals that at first they may not agree with, or like at all. But that’s OK because tough empathy works – and tough empathy is about what’s needed at a particular point in time, not what’s preferred by the consulting team. After all, the team may want something, or prefer something else, but they don’t after all ultimately carry the responsibility for the business, do they? You do though.

At its best, what tough empathy means, is a balance between respect for the individual and the business imperative to achieve the task at hand.

So it could mean sitting with a recruiter who is failing, but who you know can make it. It will mean putting that person on a rehabilitation plan. It means closely managing activities, imposing time management regimes, setting daily goals, and providing intense coaching. It’s confronting and scary for the consultant. It’s frankly not that much fun for the leader either. Yes it’s tough. But you are doing it because you care about their success and their future – and at a deep level they know that.

Do you see what I am saying here? The recruiter knows you are doing something difficult for you, and difficult for her, because you care about what happens to her.  And the power in that dynamic is almost immeasurable.

Some people think that to be a great leader you have to be liked by all. That could not be more untrue. People in our industry, regardless of  ‘generation’ are not looking for friends when they look to their boss. They are looking for direction, support, honesty and clarity. And even though they may not know it at first, they may be looking for the occasional dose of tough empathy too.

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About Greg Savage

Over a career spanning thirty years, Greg Savage has established himself as a global recruitment leader. Greg is a regular keynote speaker at staffing and recruitment conferences around the world.

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7 Responses to Real leaders give people what they need. Not what they want

  1. lynette Jensen April 6, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    One of our Master’s students has been looking into the differences between generations, and not to pre-empt her thesis too much, she has found no differences, other than age and how we all feel and behave at certain ages. Anyone with a memory can remember how they were at 20 and 30 and so on, but I think the Generation Y stereotype, especially in business & HR is more about people selling courses, tools and books and therefore making money, than about reality. Generation Y, like every other generation, consists of real people with various personalities and behaviour patterns. And they, like everyone, are looking for what you describe, “direction, support, honesty and clarity”.
    Thanks Greg.

  2. Erryn Worth April 6, 2011 at 11:17 am #

    NEVER ceases to amaze that the basic principles of good leadership and management are exactly the same as good parenting. Substitute the word “leader” for “parent” and substitute “recruiter” for “child” and you’ve got a whole new career Greg!

    • Greg Savage April 6, 2011 at 11:45 am #

      Thanks Erryn
      Actually my ‘career’ as a parent takes up just about as much time as my ‘career’ as a recruiter!
      🙂

  3. Yuriy Shevchenko April 6, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    Generational stereotypes = Total Hogwash.

    Enough said.

  4. @Blackers3047 April 6, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

    I agree Greg. Leaders are born with the ability to inspire and direct. Meaning that tough leadership is a big part of a leaders role. I lead by example, maybe that’s just the way I was brought up? In my opinion, Its not about how many friends you have on Facebook or followers on Twitter or connections on LinkedIN. A leader supports his team, will always stick up and backup his team, make strategic decisions for the better of the team (some may like, some may not), provide constructive feedback when required to adapt his team BUT most importantly, in my opinion respect his team. I’m not a political man and don’t ever want to be, but a leader in my eyes is Nelson Mandela.

    Generational nurturing does play a difference in the way Gen Y v Gen X work and play. It has to because that is the theory of evolution. But it is the leaders of the businesses with Gen X, Y, Z, whatever that have the ability to pull the team together to work towards a common goal (at the personal and business level) that are successful. The ability to recruit the right skills, experience and cultural fit into your business is a huge investment, no matter what generation.

  5. Ross Clennett April 6, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    As someone who had the benefit of Greg’s in-office leadership for 9 years I can speak from personal experience that Greg provided plenty of what I needed and, at times, it wasn’t what I wanted.

    The long term effectiveness of Greg’s input was due to, I believe, my willingness to receive that messsage because I knew that Greg’s ‘rigourous’ inpurt was never personal and always had the intention of helping be a better recruiter and leader.

  6. Michael May 3, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    Wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments Greg a) need and want are two distinctly different beasts often confused by sentimentalists b) generational differences are not divided by birth years but stages of maturity and personal development.

    My experience with leadership was in the army at 19 when forced to take troops into the heart of a war zone, survival depended entirely on providing commands that would save lives and win battles. The evidence and results speak for themselves, it only takes one or two encounters for the team to know who needs to do what, when and how notwithstanding that these activities are exercised and executed within a minute or two.

    In conclusion based on my experience leadership is about providing strategy, guidance, direction and support; to individuals, teams and organisations; that promotes and endorses a sense of security, discipline for the now and hope for the future. It is the ultimate form of caring.

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