Play a sentence completion game with me. The most important job of a leader is ___________. You fill in the blank. This is an activity I did with a group of entrepreneurs and business leaders to whom I recently spoke. I got responses like to inspire, to ensure accountability, and to set a strategic direction. You may have had a similar response. And all of those, along with many others, are good answers.

Here is the way I complete this sentence:

The most important job of a leader is to assure maximum results through creating an environment where every individual is contributing at their full potential and everyone is pulling together towards a common purpose.

If you think about it for a minute, the only way an organization can achieve maximum results is, by definition, if every single person is contributing at their full potential. If this is not happening, results are being left on the table. And everyone also must be pulling together in the same direction if the organization is going to achieve maximum results. Imagine a team of horses that are not tethered together trying to pull a heavy wagon. One side of the team is pulling off to the left and the other is pulling off to the right. You get the picture.

What does an environment that supports maximum success look like?

The Most Important Job of a Leader

It’s an environment where there is a focus on achieving high results and there is a low level of struggle and strife, or the upper right-hand quadrant labeled “Flourishing” in the diagram above.

I think it’s pretty easy to see that the “Failing” and “Frolicking” quadrants, where results are low, are not where an organization wants to operate. However, the “Façade of Success” quadrant is probably the most dangerous. Results are high so the organization must be successful, right? The problem is that when there is a high level of struggle and strife or toxic stress, success is not sustainable. Success is being achieved but at what cost and for how long?

Second, from a neuroscience perspective, people cannot contribute at their fullest potential in an environment where there is toxic stress. Here’s a very simplistic explanation of why. When we are in an environment where we are under a significant amount of negative stress and lack a sense of psychological safety we are primarily operating from our primitive brain with the amygdala in charge. This part of our brain cannot be creative, innovative or problem solve. These activities require that we operate from our executive brain or pre-frontal cortex. We cannot operate from both at the same time.

Therefore, if an organization is operating in the “Façade of Success” quadrant, no matter how successful it appears, it is not as successful as it could be because people are not making maximum use of their abilities to create, innovate and problem solve.

How do you create an environment where people and results flourish?

We use our STAR Five Point Performance Optimization program to help leaders move their organizations into the “Flourishing” quadrant.

Point 1:

It starts with a clear vision and strategy and one to three clearly defined priorities for achieving that vision. Effective visions are bold and speak to people at an emotional as well as logical level.

Point 2:

Leaders in organizations that operate in the “Flourishing” quadrant take the time to get to know their team members, their goals and aspirations, and their strengths and weaknesses. These leaders help team members see their role in achieving the vision; they listen to team member concerns, questions and ideas; and they provide the coaching and guidance necessary for team members to grow and develop. These leaders also set clear expectations and hold everyone accountable to delivering on those expectations.

Point 3:

Leaders build cohesive, high-functioning teams that are aligned around the organization vision. They build this alignment by being willing to engage in dialogue and debate around issues and ideas. They openly encourage and willingly listen to perspectives that differ from their own.

Point 4:

There is a focus on developing, implementing and maintaining the systems and processes that support people in doing their jobs consistently, effectively, and with minimum struggle and strife. As Total Quality Management Guru W. Edwards Deming said, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” Good systems and processes are critical to maximum performance.

Point 5:

There is a culture of trust where people feel psychologically safe. This allows the amygdala to relax and people can fully use their creative, innovative, problem solving skills. A study by Google dubbed “Project Aristotle” found that psychological safety is the single most important element to successful teams. And achieving psychological safety requires cultural norms that encourage people to express their opinions and feelings; ask questions; and respectfully disagree with the status quo.

In which quadrant is your organization, department or team currently operating? What is one step that you can take now, regardless of your position, to create an even higher level of flourishing? If you’re not sure how to get started, begin by asking more questions and listening longer.