You Are One of a Kind, and I’ll Lead You that Way!

This past weekend, I went to the History and Science Museum with my family.  My kids paused at the exhibit that explained, “You Are One of a Kind!”  The display showed graphical images of DNA structures and genetics.  It also included a large hand with the detailed patterns of its fingerprints.  My kids were amazed that no two are alike; that every single person is unique.

This fact of nature can provide quite the challenge for leaders.  How could you possibly treat everyone as unique?  After all, you may have a large team that reports to you.  Then, of course, there are corporate policies and procedures.  Let’s face it, they exist to ensure that you treat everyone the same – no preferential treatment and no discrimination. 

So, should a leader even consider “individualizing” their people?  How can it be done in a way that keeps your HR team happy at the same time it increases the effectiveness of your team?

I’d like to offer four ways that leaders can further motivate their teams by better understanding them as individuals:

Discover Their Strengths

There’s a reason why StrengthsFinder 2.0 has been a consistently best-selling book.  We all want to better understand our strengths, and we want to use them!  Of course we do!  By using our strengths, it allows us to have a posture of confidence, which further promotes our motivation and desire to be engaged.

Gallup research shows that organizations offering strengths intervention are 12.5% more productive, 9% more profitable, with 15% less turnover than organizations offering no strengths intervention.

Leaders, this is great news!  By understanding individual strengths, you can empower each person to use them more consistently and more effectively.  You can build better teams knowing there is great strength in a particular area or complementing strengths across the board.  You can challenge your people in a way that motivates them instead of frustrating them, and you can also discover when you should be following your people instead of leading them – it may turn out that someone has a strength where you have a weakness, and that can be a rewarding win-win!

Understand Communication Styles

We all process information differently in our own heads, and like most things that come in…they also come out.  Some people speak with an excruciating amount of detail; others prefer the ten thousand foot view.  Some want to provide constant updates; others just want to let you know a milestone has been achieved.  Some people like to provide feedback; others won’t offer an opinion unless prodded.

Leaders need to understand their own communication style, as well as that of their people.  Nobody wants to be misunderstood or unnecessarily frustrated, and we all know that choosing the wrong words, tone or frequency can cause this.

Explain to your team how you would like them to communicate with you.  How often do you want updates, in what form, with what level of detail?  Help them understand how to meet your expectations, so it doesn’t become a stressor for them.

Likewise, you should try to understand their needs.  Does someone need more direction, feedback or a higher level of detail to produce the results you’re looking for?  Does someone else’s personality suggest that you’re better off honing your listening skills, versus your speaking skills?  Is someone prone to getting their feelings hurt, or do they just want to be spoken to with logic?

By better understanding what your people want to hear, as well as how they naturally express themselves, you can become far more effective in building relationships and accomplishing common goals.

Be Flexible

Not many people enjoy the feeling of being handcuffed, with no freedom or flexibility.  Nor do many enjoy being droids – simple task-masters, following detailed direction with no need to think creatively or leverage their own skills and talents.

Leaders, work with your team to create a vision.  Be sure they have the necessary tools and support to be successful.  Be sure they’re focused and motivated.  Then, let them do their jobs the best way they know how.

Be sure that your team understands the milestones and deadlines  – in fact, work together with them to set these dates!  Empower them to get there, but don’t micro-manage the process.  Let them know they are trusted, and they will want to show you that trust was appropriately placed.

Again, if they’re leveraging their strengths and you’ve agreed upon the necessary communication, it shouldn’t be too difficult to be flexible with their approach.

Show Your Appreciation

It’s so important for people to feel appreciated.  It’s a large part of what keeps them motivated.  That’s why it’s critical to understand how people feel rewarded and accomplished; what do they value?

While a financial bonus may work well for one, an unexpected day off might be more highly valued for another.  Some may appreciate a big fuss and an award recognition for their contributions; others may prefer a quiet donation to their favorite charity.

Leaders, if you don’t know the answer, then ask your people what they value.  Tell them you think they’re doing great and ask them how you can best demonstrate that.  Your appreciation is no reward, if they don’t get the message.

What other strategies can help leaders more closely connect with their people?  What additional benefits can be achieved by these and other approaches?  How can you become a more personal leader that values the thumbprint of each person on their team?

Erin Schreyer is the President of Sagestone Partners and the Founder of Authentic Leadership in Cincinnati.  She is passionate about helping leaders and organizations reach their greatest potential.  Feel free to contact Erin directly at

22 thoughts on “You Are One of a Kind, and I’ll Lead You that Way!

    • Thanks so much, Alison! I always appreciate your comments and support of my messaging. Hopefully as we share with others, more and more develop an appreciation and begin to model this kind of leadership!

  1. I love this post Erin. So much time is often spent in making sure that no one gets preferential treatment or worse, is discriminated against, that we forget to approach people as individuals. Your message is a very important one.
    I particularly like the last one “Show Your Appreciation” because there is a tendency for some leaders to say “thank you” in a way that THEY would like to be thanked. Taking the time and trouble to learn and understand what people value as individuals, builds loyalty and boosts self-esteem. What could be better?

    Thanks. I enjoyed reading your post

    • Gwyn,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I agree the appreciation piece is a big one. I’ve had many a client express the failure of an incentive or appreciation program to me an wonder why it wasn’t successful. In the end, it was just as you said – the reward was what THEY like and, as it turned out, not somehting their people valued as much. We all work harder and more happily so when we’re valued and appreciated, so it’s an important one to get right!!

  2. Great post, Erin.

    As always, you nail down important reminders that all leaders should heed. As leaders we must remember that standardization stamps out individualism…and individualism is the catalyst that allows a team to uniquely serve.


    • Mark, thanks for bringing up the word “serve!” I love that you said it that way! If leaders can be that catalyst that increases and improves the level of serving, everyone benefits (and is more fulfilled too!!) I appreciate your comments and encouragement, as always!

  3. Hi Erin,

    Yet another thought provoking article. Thank you. There are different kinds of leadership roles and thus relationships. The leader of the United States, for example can not maintain personal relationships with everyone in the Country, but I would certainly hope that he has those relationships with his cabinet members and staff and I would also like to think that if he and I were to meet in person that we could and would respect one another as individuals.

    There are also leaders with much smaller domains, i.e. John Morgridge, the CEO who took Cisco Systems public. He made it his responsibility to meet and learn something about every employee inviting all of us to engage him as a human being without regard for titles.

    I believe that the ability to “Individualize” our followers stems from two sources, a genuine fondness for, and a genuine respect for other people. Both of these must be present in order to have the desire to help others which I believe is fundamental to being a good leader.

    I will likely never achieve the fame and fortune of some of the leaders I admire, but I take great pride in engaging my staff as people first. I have made it my guiding principle to manage the environment and lead the people and it has served me well.

    Again, great article. Keep them coming.

    • Gordon, thanks so much for your comments! I always appreciate you stopping by and adding value (and you always do!) Thanks for adding “the desire to help others” – this is a very necessary quality for the best leaders!!

  4. Great article! If only more managers could understand these principles they would understand that, in the short term, it costs a lot in time and energy but, in the long run, it saves tremendous time and necessary output from the manager. By learning everyone’s strengths, putting these strengths to use on the job, using Q&A communication instead of the “command” style and showing appreciation – lots of appreciation, often – “looking every day for what people are doing right” – managers will be amazed at the results – many results would never have come about without this involvement with a manager’s greatest resource of all – people!

  5. Wonderful post, Erin. I talk to leaders about “managing differently” for each individual. And you’re right, it often takes a bit of time for them to get out of the “treat everyone equally” paradigm, and shift to “treat people equitably.”

    I often counsel them to ask each of the people on their team, “How could I best lead you, so that you can contribute your best, and I can be the best leader you’ve ever had?” When you ask this question, it opens a dialog that informs you about how to leverage each person’s talents and strengths.

    Generally, a very constructive dialog ensues, and both walk away with a clear understanding on how they’ll interact most effectively.

    Leader’s often say, “I don’t have time for this, I have ‘real work’ to do.” It’s critical to help them see that getting the best from each of their people, and helping their people grow and develop, is their ‘real work.’

    It’s like the old Midas Muffler slogan, “Pay me now, or pay me later.” Invest time time with your people up front, or waste endless amounts of time and energy trying to fix performance problems.

    Thanks for this great post, Erin!

  6. This is a a great post: straightforward, clear, and sound. Good teachers intuitively understand working with student strengths and positive reinforcement. It really isn’t any different with adults. Also, in my counseling work I’ve found this to be equally true.

  7. Great post Erin,
    Basically it comes to the fact that ALL of us are looking for attention & recognition/appreciation.
    When we walk is like we have a sign on our head or chest that says- pls look at me, I am here.
    That’s why leaders that lead from heart will connect more with people and are the more successful in life.

  8. Great post Erin! You really narrowed it down to four very essential aspects that should help leaders treat everyone uniquely. It can be a challenge especially in the creative field where emotions play a large part in how satisfied we feel at our job. It’s all about respect and taking the time to understand the individual.

  9. Interesting post! I have StrengthFinder 2.0 on my ‘must read’ list. Leadership is a very important trait. Leading at the edge means playing to win as an individual, as a team, and as an organization. Companies that create a leadership development culture excel because they become talent magnets by always providing people with opportunities to learn, grow, and build leadership competencies. Regardless of their professional and organizational roles, all top leaders must understand how leadership, culture, and operational effectiveness are closely intertwined to achieve outstanding results. At the IMD OWP 2010 you will learn what leaders in the top companies, who are known for their outstanding leadership cultures, do so successfully to continue leading at the edge

    • Thanks for the comments, Jennifer! You add some excellent points. I always say that the best companies are ones that have a culture of “leadership at all levels.” Everyone should be encouraged to bring their best! I like to call it “leading from WHO you are, and not what (title) you are!”

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