Participation trophies aren’t just for children. For adults, unearned accolades are disguised as promotions, committee appointments and the bestowing of the designation “leader.” Much like participation trophies, promotions, appointments, and winning elections look and feel good. Such opportunities are often pursued for résumés, the professional equivalent of a trophy case. And, like participation trophies, they largely reward showing up.
Real trophies, awarded at the end of a season or competition, require more than attendance. These trophies represent the discipline to train and improve over time. They represent the process of learning how to blend self-awareness with teamwork to bring about results. They are evidence of risk-taking for collective impact and resilience. They are given to those who perform under pressure and face challenges with determination and grace. Real trophies are about results.
We should evaluate leadership – corporate, nonprofit, and civic – for these same things. We need leaders who demonstrate discipline, resilience and restraint in difficult times. We should reward people who build teams and harness talent for shared goals. We should celebrate the courage to pursue bold ideas and support people if they fall short or fail.
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We’ve all worked for the manager who was promoted because of seniority and age and not necessarily for his or her management skills. We’ve wrestled with whether to overlook poor management of a nonprofit for a good cause. After a while, it becomes disheartening, and people disengage.
According to Gallup, 67 percent of U.S. employees describes themselves as unengaged. A study by Google identified 48 percent of Americans as “interested bystanders,” people who know what’s happening in the world but don’t take civic action. Voter participation for local elections is below 15 percent in most major American cities.
To be clear, we should not discount the importance of showing up. After all, it’s supposedly “half the battle” and “80 percent of life.” But we should be more discerning about leadership and stop choosing, promoting and retaining leaders based on length of employment or meeting attendance.
Let’s choose our leaders based on what they do, not just what they say. Let’s start rewarding collaboration and teamwork. Let’s consider social appearances less and behind-the-scenes work more. Let’s celebrate taking risks and taking stands.
To do that, we have to challenge ourselves as employees, nonprofits and citizens to do a few things better. First, we need to pay attention and stay informed. Holding people accountable is difficult if we are ignorant of the issues. For corporate and nonprofit leadership, we should set goals, provide honest feedback and expect improvement. Performance reviews should not be limited to financial performance or mere survival of a nonprofit.
Second, we should create opportunities for more people. We have a habit of asking the same people to serve. Those of us who get asked should learn to say, “no, but I will help you find someone.” Those of us responsible for recruitment and selection should allow for longer and more inclusive search processes. Those already in leadership positions should mentor incoming talent so they are prepared to serve.
Finally, we should reward empathy and collaboration. In this increasingly complicated, communicative world, the ability to develop, sustain and leverage human relationships is a competitive advantage. We need to take note of the ease with which leaders work with others – effective collaboration is learned and practiced. We should pay attention to turnover under their leadership. We should be wary of people who have not built partnerships when in positions of power.
We can and should expect more from our leaders. And, if this month’s election results are any indication, people are tired of giving out participation trophies.
Chiou is the executive director of Queen City Forward. Email: email@example.com.