An organization is only as good as its leaders. It’s absolutely true that too much hierarchy can kill the company’s creativity and productivity, but so does an absence of great leadership.
Some companies, like Treehouse, experimented with a flat organization without any leadership at all, and soon found out that people felt adrift, like lonely islands without support, when they weren’t being led properly.
But becoming a good leader is not an easy job. Developing yourself into a great leader is one of the toughest challenges one can set for themselves. That’s why you can find thousands of books and research articles written on the topic.
Nevertheless, we still don’t have a simple and clear formula for becoming a good leader. I guess we could really say that leadership is like beauty: hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
No matter how much entertaining the comparison of leadership and beauty is, it would be foolish to stop at that. We definitely know several ways how one can become a better leader.
I cherry‑picked the best ones, describing the key personality and behavioral traits of great leaders.
You become a great leader by leading people
Let’s start with the most basic, fundamental mistake (new) leaders make. If you are a leader, your job is to lead people.
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That means the majority of your time must be spent dealing with people. Many leaders never make the transition from doing their operational work to actually leading people.
Before taking a leadership position, most people excel at a specific job role. They are exceptional at marketing, sales, finance, product development or any other similar role. Because they excel at something, the natural course of things is to be constantly promoted until at some point they take the leadership position.
But succeeding as a leader doesn’t mean doing the same things you were doing before you became a leader. If the organization is small, you might not have the luxury of only leading people, but part of your daily schedule should definitely be dedicated only to leading people.
As a leader, you need to first set an inspiring vision and outstanding strategy for your team, and then you have to lead them. Yes, actually lead them.
You have to motivate people, empower them, hold them accountable for delivering and meeting certain standards, you need to coach them, see and develop their potential, and so on. It’s impossible to be a good leader if you don’t show care for the people you lead.
Here are some good questions to ask yourself:
- Do you have a clear vision, strategy and operational plan for your team?
- How much of your time do you dedicate to actually leading instead of doing operational work?
- What’s your system of making sure people deliver results?
- How much time do you spend motivating, empowering and coaching your teammates?
Building relationships and delivering results
There’s an endless debate over whether a leader should be an autocratic or democratic one, more result- or relationship‑oriented. There’s a very straightforward answer to that, based on research.
A leader should be both. An outstanding leader knows how to build good relationships (democratic orientation), but also makes sure that results are delivered (autocratic orientation). It’s not one or the other, but one and the other.
That’s a hard transition for most leaders.
Leaders who are relationship‑oriented are terrified of setting clear goals, boundaries in relationships, giving honest feedback and holding people accountable for their work. They are terrified that people will stop liking them if they became more result‑driven.
On the other hand, people who are result‑oriented have a deep‑rooted fear of showing the human side of themselves. Showing vulnerability, trusting people, having a friendly talk … these are things that productivity‑oriented leaders equate with losing respect. But consequently, they never develop their true potential as leaders.
People will like you even more as a leader if you actually lead them to the results. People will respect you even more as a leader if you show that you care about them.
In both cases, you have to start developing “the other side” of every great leader. If you care more about relationships than goals, you have to make the first small step towards holding people accountable for results.
A very good first step is to make a list of small behaviors that bother you with people that you lead (spending time on social media, taking too many smoke breaks etc.) and communicating with them clearly that they’re crossing the boundaries. Relationship‑oriented leaders find that terrifying, but once they set boundaries for the first time, it feels very freeing.
It’s not much different with result‑oriented leaders. Noticing that one of the team members has a bad day and asking them what is going on by showing genuine interest for their moodiness might be a great way for people to start feeling more welcome and appreciated.
Nobody wants to feel only as a workhorse at a job. If you are a completely result‑oriented person, you might soon find that people will respect you even more if you show your human side.
When looking for balance between being relationship- and result‑oriented, the book The first 90 days by Michael D. Watkins offers a very good guideline.
As a leader, you will build your credibility if you are:
- Demanding but can be satisfied
- Approachable but not familiar
- Determined but reasonable
- Focused but flexible
- Executive but don’t cause too big shocks
- Prepared to make difficult decisions that are also considerate
One more good notion is to be more democratic when you’re setting the strategy and gathering ideas, and more autocratic in the execution phase.
The major leadership credibility killers
People love to be led by great leaders, but they can also quickly identify poor leaders and leaders who are only enjoying formal power without having any clue of what real leadership is.
With poor leaders in position, organizational problems tend to multiply. Team members become more and more unsatisfied, politics kicks in, people stop performing, and relationships starts to crack.
Without a great leader, the organizational environment starts to become toxic (unless people are extremely mature). Poor leadership is a negative spiral, very uncomfortable for all the people involved.
Here’s why: individual behavior is always a function of personality traits and environmental culture. The worse the culture, the worse the behavior of people. The worse the behavior of people, the worse the culture, and so on. And bad leaders are in the middle of all this.
Organizational culture eats every plan or strategy for breakfast. Leaders shape organizational culture by what they allow and what they don’t allow.
With bad leadership and consequently poor organizational culture, problems start to pile up. And bad leaders have the tendency to start running away. Obviously avoiding problems like the plague is one of the major leadership credibility killers. But there are several others.
The major leadership credibility killers:
- Trying to do everything by yourself as a leader and micro‑managing people
- Not making any difficult decisions at all
- Keeping people in wrong positions and not firing the rotten apples
- Not admitting your own and the team’s weaknesses and finding consulting help
- Not developing and empowering people, and not breeding new young leaders in team
- Not leading people situationally, based on their competences, attitude and tasks (as a leader you can use directing, coaching, supporting and delegating accordingly)
There is more interesting thing that I noticed.
Many people who become leaders start exploiting their position by, for example, starting their own distracting pet projects, wasting time on unnecessary meetings, spending time on coffee breaks, and doing everything except the thing they should be doing – strategizing and leading people.
4F response – the ultimate challenge leaders have to overcome
If you want to become a great leader, you must first know how to lead yourself. A big portion of leading yourself represents managing your emotions. And managing emotions is hard for leaders.
Here’s why: as a leader, you constantly have to deal with problems, issues and people. The people are usually an especially big challenge, since they’re not robots with performance specifications who blindly follow orders, but rather have very different capacities, attitudes, opinions, respect for authority, and so on.
In other words, being a leader means you’re in a constant state of crisis, dealing with numerous challenges and issues. That’s emotionally hard. Every crisis, problem, threat or misbehavior can throw you into the 4F mode – fight, flight, freeze, fawn.
And evolutionarily speaking, we can all quickly get thrown into one of the 4F states. Consequently, many leaders start living in one of the 4F modes. Their leadership style becomes one of 4F toxic emotional states. You’ve probably seen them many times:
- Fight mode – the aggressive, authoritative leader, feared by people
- Flight mode – the anxious leader, constantly creating crisis and drowning in work
- Freeze mode – the leader who buries their head in the sand, and is completely passive and numb
- Fawn mode – the leader who plays politics, tries to please everyone, but pleases no one
We know from movies that every leader in any of the 4F states, gets thrown out of the game sooner or later.
The anxious leader always loses first, because when you lose your head, you lose any leadership or even following capability. The fight mode leader is usually the wicked character that everybody wants to defeat, or goes with his head through the wall until he gets killed. People who freeze become a burden for everybody else. And politics and pleasing others works only for so long.
The solution lies in turning 4F states into an advantage as a leader. It takes an extraordinary emotional and mind management to achieve that, but when you do, you can really become an extraordinary leader, since not many leaders are in that club.
You can achieve that by developing emotional resilience, managing your own sensibility, and learning techniques to get yourself out of the 4F mode as quickly as possible, if there’s no survival danger present.
When you manage to achieve that, you can turn the 4F response into your advantage as a leader. Below is a table showing the direction in which one must develop the 4F biological responses to become an exceptionally great leader:
|Assertiveness||Disengagement||Acute awareness||Love & Service|
Develop yourself as a leader or let other people lead
Carrying a leadership badge or possessing an executive title absolutely sounds nice. It can be a great career achievement – unless it’s only on paper. Nobody wants that, because leaders with only formal power do devastating damage to the organization and all the people involved.
You don’t become a great leader by being promoted and earning the title. You become a great leader when you decide deep down that you truly want to become a great leader and you’re determined to develop your leadership potential no matter what.
Earning a leadership status just because you excelled as an expert in a certain role for so long is far from making you deserving of being called a great leader.
Thus, the first important question to ask yourself is if you truly, deeply want to be or become a leader. If the answer is yes, make sure you start to strategically develop your leadership capacities and that you actually lead people.
On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with staying an expert in your field, taking a consulting role or finding another way to advance your career. Many times, an even more important skill than leading people is having the capacity to be led.
Lead, follow or get out of the way.
Let’s end by talking about Google’s extensive research study on what makes great leaders. The leaders who know how to deliver outstanding results and lead teams where people feel appreciated, feel much happier and retain better.
Like we said, it’s a healthy mixture of being result- and relationship‑driven, and making sure you’re not leading out of any of the 4F states.
Here are eight traits you should develop to become a great leader, according to Google:
- Be a good coach
- Empower your team and don’t micromanage
- Express interest in your team members’ success and well-being
- Be productive and result-oriented
- Be a good communicator and listen to your team
- Help your employees with career development
- Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
- Have technical skills so you can advise the team
The only way to develop as a leader is to constantly improve. Improving yourself means finding better ways to achieve results and changing your attitudes and behaviors.
As a final note, that means great leaders must have a great capacity for self-reflection and constantly find new better ways to communicate and behave towards the people they lead. So as a leader, start by asking yourself what you will stop doing and what you will start doing to lead your people better.