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Friday with Friends - George Denies - 4 Characteristics of Great Leaders

Friday with Friends - George Denies

I have known George Denies for many years, in fact, we have worked together on several organizational improvement initiatives.

Without further ado: George Denies and his thoughts on the Four Characteristics of Great Leaders.

Organizational success depends on great leadership. Throughout nearly 14 years as a municipal parks and recreation professional, I saw the best and worst of leadership. And though I didn't necessarily realize it at first, at times I was part of the problem. For example, an off-handed comment by a first-year lifeguard made me realize that the supervisory team I had put in place was viewed as lazy, entitled and unwilling to help their fellow team members — both a shock to me, and a disservice to my lifeguards. I wanted a team of great leaders, and I had the exact opposite.

Great leaders motivate, inspire, coach, discipline, encourage and develop their team. Under these conditions, team members have a better work ethic and buy into the organization's vision. Unfortunately, the converse is also true. If leaders demean instead of encourage, suppress instead of empower and criticize instead of support, team members become lazy, disengaged, negative, entitled or get burned out. This is what happened within my aquatics division.

So what does organizational leadership look like, and how can you implement it? In a recent survey I conducted with recreation employees in the Dallas area, I found several interesting correlations between quality supervisors, and how employees felt about their role in their organization and the value they bring to it. I started by asking two simple questions:
  1. What are some of the common errors that you have seen your bosses, supervisors and co-workers in leadership roles make?
  2. What are some of the great qualities of an effective leader that you have worked for?
As to the first question, employees answered that they dislike complacent leaders, those who seem too comfortable in their job, play favorites and don't lead by example. They also don't like to be micromanaged, and don't like it when their efforts go unrecognized. These answers should come as no surprise, but they give those in leadership roles a great roadmap of things to avoid when working with employees.

As for the positive attributes of leaders, responses fell into one of four categories: vision, communication, character and work ethic. All four are individually and cumulatively necessary to the success of any organization. When all four areas work seamlessly together from the top of the organization on down, success lies just around the corner.

Those interviewed described vision in a variety of ways, stressing that great leaders know the importance of their job, and display passion, confidence, decisiveness or motivation. It all came down to forward thinking and being proactively involved with their team to reach a common goal. Employees value leaders who show purpose and value in their work each day. Something as small as thanking an employee for great work and how it contributed to the quality of life for their guests, or how a team member's suggestion improved the operational efficiency of the organization, leads to a better service provided to the community and a more engaged team.

Leaders seek to improve and move toward the goals they have for their team and organization. If you don't have goals for your team, take some time to set and communicate one-, five- and 10-year goals for yourself, your organization and your team. You'll be glad you did.

Willingness to listen, empathy and understanding topped the attributes that fell under communication. Employees appreciate when their bosses care about them, whether giving direction on a work project, coaching them to greater proficiency or recognizing them for a job well done. Small things such as friendliness, smiling often and engaging your employees in conversation while at work can go a long way toward employee satisfaction and productivity.

After vision and communication comes character. Employees will work harder for someone who keeps their word. Leaders who don't lead by example take advantage of their position, lose respect from their team and fail to be role models for the good employee behaviors that their organization needs. Modeling great character sets the standard for your organization's future.

The previous three characteristics can immediately be discounted by a team if a leader doesn't exhibit a strong work ethic. Leaders need to be always present, punctual, organized and diligent. Proactivity and leading by example shows that a leader believes in corporate success and has the high level of engagement that it takes to help an organization succeed. Leaders should be proactive in staff training and daily operations and train their team to handle situations before they come up.

A peer of mine, Jim Wheeler, recreation manager with City of San Francisco Recreation and Parks, often asks those in the aquatics industry an interesting question: "Why do you allow your pool managers to sit in the pool office? No one has ever drowned in a pool office!" This simple yet profound statement speaks volumes about both work ethic and leadership in general. You want leaders in place who value hard work and are willing to go the extra mile to ensure you have a great operation.

Vision, communication, character and work ethic make up the foundation of great organizational leadership. Great leaders need to communicate these characteristics to their staff by modeling them on a daily basis, as well as teaching their team the essentials and importance of quality leadership. To do this well, leaders need to be intentional in training their staff and exhibit patience during the process. It won't happen overnight.


George Deines spent nearly 14 years working in the municipal aquatics industry before joining aquatic consulting firm Counsilman-Hunsaker as a project manager.

This article appeared in the January/February issue of Athletic Business. Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry.  The article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue with the title "What are the key qualities of great leaders?"



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