We’ve talked about why leadership is important and why it matters, and that leadership the single biggest factor in determining if you win or lose at anything you’re doing. Leadership is more art than science, and that there’s no single way to lead (see The Myth of Leadership Style). That is true, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some attributes that are almost always, or at least frequently, found in superb leaders.
Today, we’ll cover what, to me, are the 5 most significant attributes of effective leaders. They may seem simple, and on the surface, they are. But the art of fully incorporating these can anything but easy. If you can master these, you’ll be well on your way to being a an effective leader.
This may seem odd to many, or perhaps a bit soft. But I argue that it’s humility that really allows leaders to accomplish great things.
On a personal level, humility is the driving force that gets leaders out of bed each day. It’s the voice in their head telling them that they’re not better than anyone else and that they need to work harder than everyone else to accomplish what they set out to do.
Working in teams, however, is where we really see the true power of the humble leader. You’ll hear me talk about teams a lot, and you can’t separate leadership from teams. Life generally occurs in teams. Especially in a professional setting, you will find yourself in a combination of teams. You simply will not be able to do everything yourself, and in many cases, leaders of teams find themselves in situations where they actually aren’t physically executing the key steps toward a goal, but rather ensuring that other team members fulfill their respective steps. You can’t be a good leader if you can’t work in teams, and it’s because of humility that teams function well.
Humility is considering the fact that you may be wrong or that you may not be the best at something. Humility is taking a step back, asking for perspectives and thoughts from others on the team, and wholeheartedly considering their contentions. Without humility, you prevent yourself from tapping into the precious minds of your team members, all but rendering them incapacitated. Humility allows you to break free of continued self-preservation habits, to risk someone thinking you’re less than perfect, and to ask the questions that get you closer to your true goals. And here’s the funny thing, when you ask a question with true intent behind it, no one will ever think less of you – they’ll recognize you for being someone that wants to accomplish things and they’ll instantly be drawn to you.
Never fall into the trap of thinking you’re better than even the lowest person in your organization. Each and every person is not only important, but is probably better at something than you are. The minute you forget that, you’re screwed.
Ask yourself: What are you trying to accomplish? How are you going to accomplish it? Most importantly, how does each individual’s piece of work contribute to that goal.
You may know the answer to the first question, and you hopefully then know the answer to the second. Where many leaders falter, however, is with the third: showing each person how the work that they’re doing contributes to success. After all, when someone sees how what they’re doing helps accomplish the mission, motivation levels improve and a cycle of success beings.
But to fully understand this, let’s start with goals themselves. It’s all too common in organizations to find different perspectives as to what the same organization’s goal actually is. For instance, I once found myself working for a company where some felt the mission was to grow top-line revenue at all costs, and others were looking to enhance margin at all costs. More often than not, those two are at direct odds. So how did this confusion begin? Well, the organization’s goal was to make more money. You may laugh, but this was a Fortune 100 company with a decades-long track record of success. Making more money can be interpreted in several different ways.
When you’re setting goals for your team, there’s no room for ambiguity. You can’t afford to assume that individuals actually understand something. One area where smart, would-be leaders get into trouble is by creating strategies and goals that aren’t simple in nature. The more complex something becomes, the more opportunity there is for individuals to develop different ideas as to what is being pursued. The revenue vs. margin example I provided depicts this pretty well – and that was a fairly basic strategy. Imagine how many variations you may find when the goal is increasingly complex. The simpler you keep things, the less risk you’ll have when it comes to each member of the organization understanding what is being accomplished. What’s even better is that when these individuals have full clarity on simple goals, they can see how their work impacts that. Better yet, you make it easier for these individuals to change their work so that they instead focus on things that truly do impact the goal.
Throughout my career, one of the single most enjoyable facets, has been seeing individuals develop and ultimately wow me with their ingenuity. That was only possible, however, because of the way they were empowered.
In large companies, you see a funny paradigm. Employees become so used to the typical hierarchy, ripe with poor managers, that they fall into this zombie-like trap of waiting for direction and instruction. I saw this tons during my career, and when I moved into a role leading a large finance organization, I’d have people on our team walk into my office all the time telling me about a problem and then ask me what I wanted them to do about it. My reaction was always the same: what do you think we should do? I wasn’t doing this to patronize them. I wanted them to know that I valued their opinion. Without asking that question, I wouldn’t be doing my job developing team members either. It took a few weeks of this before the team started coming prepared with a few options and their own recommendation for how to proceed.
Guess what? The opportunities that they came armed with were far beyond anything I could have come up with myself. Because of that simple exercise, our team not only did great work at a time when our company dearly needed it, but most of the individuals on that team saw themselves promoted many times over and in some cases moved on to bigger and better roles elsewhere in the company. I remain tremendously proud of that group of individuals to this day.
As a leader, very rarely are you going to actually be a subject matter expert. It’s those under your command that will be. Your job is to put them in a position to do their best work. It’s that simple. Without empowering them, however, that can never happen.
So here you are humming along, doing the things you think you need to do to make your team great. You’ve got clarity in your strategy, you’re bathing in humility juice, and you’re team is empowered to do great work, but it’s not quite clicking.
There’s a magic ingredient missing – one that all of us have seen in our bosses. It’s a massively important ingredient to getting our team to do great work. And that ingredient is empathy. The ability to understand the feelings of another person.
When you’re leading a team, you’re basically finding ways to get your team members to the right things. Part of that, as we discussed is empowering them to do these things. The other part of it, though, is motivating them to just that. So how do we motivate people? Here’s where you have to be careful. Motivation is not uniform from one person to the next. What motivates one will not motivate another. This is where empathy comes in. By understanding your employees, knowing what pushes them, what bothers them, what scares them, and most importantly what they respond to, you can ensure that you will best be able to tap into that knowledge to motivate them.
What’s more, is that empathy allows you to connect with your team on a personal basis. You don’t need to go out to dinner together and share pictures of your kids, but by knowing each individual and understanding what they think and how they feel, you can better establish a relationship with them that further motivates them do great work. They’re feeling respected and valued which leads to them doing great work while you’re getting close to your goals as a team. It’s a win-win.
As a team you’re going to be presented with unknowns and curveballs each and every day. So how do you set up a team to be able to handle these? The first thing you do is remove any variables you can. That starts with consistency. From one day to the next, you as a leader must be consistent. Consistent in your goals. Consistent in the way you interact with the team. Consistent in the tactics you use to accomplish your goals. In doing so, your team will know that they can count on you. This predictability will also free them up to tackle the issues that really matter to achieving your goals.
Years ago, I worked for a large company where each week we had a 2.5 hour meeting of the company’s most senior executives. At this meeting, each executive had to present a short update on their business from that week to the CEO.
The problem arose in that you never knew what the CEOs reaction was going to be. Some weeks he was disinterested in your presentation. Others he would ask a few questions. And on some dreaded weeks, he would key on on something and give you a fairly unpleasant teaching moment in front of the rest of the team. The impact on attendees was profound, and I saw it impact their work in numerous negative ways including using the majority of their work weeks preparing for all possible alternatives within this meeting rather than doing real work. Over time I began to realize that it wasn’t necessarily the verbal beatings they feared, but rather the unknown. The fear of what could happen was actually worse than the impact of that event actually taking place.
This is obviously an extreme example, but it shows how important it is to be a steady, consistent leader for your team. Predictability covers a multitude of sins.
So there you have it.
If you master those, you’ll be in great shape as a leader. Take some time this week to reflect on those give words. Think about where you need to improve and attack that weakness with everything you have. Leadership isn’t a unicorn. Anyone can master it – IF – they put in the work.
We need better leaders at work and in life; I’d love to hear about what you’re doing to master leadership in your own lives. Shoot me a message on Twitter or LinkedIn. And as always, thanks to everyone for spreading the word.