If you're reading a post about how to be a better leader, chances are you're already a good leader—yet what makes good leaders exceptional is their hunger to grow and get better, year after year.
To raise your own leadership game, here are 12 actions you can take—each designed to help you transform your team (and yourself).
1. Create a compelling vision
Or more precisely, a vision that's compelling to those who will be helping you carry it out. Your vision needs to pass the "Why should I care?" test. Some principles to help you achieve this:
- Speak in terms of your team's interests. Don't assume what motivates you motivates them.
- Trade data-heavy PowerPoints for the power of stories. "Show, don't tell." Or do both.
- Paint a vision of how, together, your work makes a positive difference.
Finally, the simpler your vision, the more compelling it will be. In the words of Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc., “We believe that we're on the face of the earth to make great products and that's not changing. We're constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple, not the complex."
What is your simple, compelling vision—the one that will inspire your team to give their best?
2. Clarify who does what
Especially in a pandemic, when markets are constantly changing, it's good to review how your team sees their own job role, how you see it, and any disconnect between the two. Nothing saps employee engagement like lack of direction or pursuing the wrong direction. When in doubt, find out.
3. Hire people you can trust, then trust them
This can hardly be stressed enough. Stay-at-home orders showed companies the strength of their teams, and more pointedly, revealed the strength of their leadership.
A team that is productive and accountable while working from home speaks well of your company's leadership and morale. If the team is less than productive, find out what it will take to get the team focused and producing again.
4. Develop a reputation for fairness
Your people need to know their work culture is a just and rational place. Without this basic sense of safety; i.e., a sense that "life is good here, and the world makes sense," trust and motivation will suffer.
I have known many high-performing contributors who lost heart because the leader—the boss—did nothing to stop bad behavior in the workplace. Be the boss who stands up to bad behavior. Bad behavior examples:
- Showing up late, unprepared, or both
- Flaking out on a team project; dropping the ball
- Undermining team morale (e.g., gossip, badmouthing)
The leader who stands up to such behavior will be admired, respected and followed. Leaders who turn a blind eye—no matter how likable they are—will lose whatever admiration, respect and loyalty they had.
5. Be forthright when communicating
“Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.” ― Warren Wiersbe
Being forthright is especially crucial when leading through tough times. A friend mine said it best:
"My motto is tell the truth and be as transparent as possible. Employees are much more understanding if they believe that you are including them as much as possible. Don't paint a picture that it is too positive or negative; just be honest and people will respect you for it, whatever the outcome."
6. Give people opportunities to grow (and yes, make mistakes)
"Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?" —Thomas J. Watson
Would you rather have a team that took risks often and sometimes failed—or a team that never took risks and never grew? Which one will drive your vision forward? Which type of company would you rather compete against?
Some practical ways to encourage growth and risk-taking:
- Give each employee a training budget—and some say in the training they receive
- Close the loop by having employees report back on what they learned or gained, and to what extent they believe the training yielded a positive return on investment (ROI)
- Set aside small blocks of time, a la Google, for employees to innovate. Here is a link to Google's free innovation guide.
- Normalize failure. Encourage your team to learn from it. When it comes to taking risks that will move the company forward, create a no-shame zone.
7. Insist on leadership at every level
I owe this one to my mother. One winter day when I was a child, she finally gave me permission to quit piano lessons—but she insisted I be the one to call my teacher and fire her. I was eleven. It was not an easy call to make. But ten minutes later, it was done. Still breathing a sigh of relief.
Insisting on leadership at every level of your company means not taking up battles that aren't yours to fight—or solving problems that aren't yours to solve. Leading this way does three things:
- It forces each member of your team to grow; to become a braver, more competent and confident version of themselves.
- It makes your job as leader much easier and more rewarding, because you're leading a much more capable team.
- It gets your team talking to each other and problem-solving together, which will strengthen teamwork faster and better than any amount of refereeing by a third party; namely, you.
Leading this way might take longer at first. It might not always be applauded, especially in the short term. Yet it's one of the best things you can do for your team— and one of the highest compliments you pay them.
8. Create a culture of appreciation
Good leaders show employees appreciation. Great leaders actively encourage the group to show appreciation for one another. No matter how well intended, the first approach can create something akin to sibling rivalry; i.e., turning praise into a competition.
The second approach communicates, "There's enough appreciation here for everyone."
At the same time, give credit where credit is due. Here's an example: If you work all night to resolve a client crisis, and I, as your boss, thank the team for their efforts, I’ve just exaggerated the team’s efforts while minimizing yours. That style of appreciation creates a disconnect, especially when it happens repeatedly.
A better approach, one that enforces team-building and still honors reality, would be to say to the team, "Join me in applauding (so-and-so) for a job well done."
9. Own your mistakes and shortcomings
If you want to "really" know how to be a better leader, simply look in the mirror and accept your imperfections—not your physical imperfections, but your shortcomings. We all have areas that get in our way at times. We all make mistakes.
Let your team see a leader who's not afraid to admit faults, who knows how to apologize when necessary, and is as coachable (i.e., able to benefit from constructive feedback) as anyone else in the company.
10. Be the most organized person on your team
Do you have to get there on your own? No. But the leader who is late, forgets appointments, or is too often scrambling just to keep up, does not inspire confidence. In my own career, I am thankful every day for my trusty assistant, who helps me to stay far more organized than I could ever become on my own.
If being organized is not your top skill or priority, simply get it covered. The transformation might not happen overnight and doesn't need to. But start moving every day in the right direction. One year from now, you will marvel at how all those small, daily improvements added up, added to your capacity to get things done, and added greater to your credibility as a leader.
11. Take self-care seriously
Self-care is not pampering. It isn't having a spa day. Self-care means managing your energy on all four levels—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual—so that you're better equipped to handle all the crises and opportunities that come your way.
Becoming a better leader requires no less. In my years of speaking and writing on this topic, I've observed that most leaders (most people in general) greatly underestimate their own need for self-care—or if you prefer, resilience. And they underestimate what it takes to achieve it, day in and day out.
The more you value your own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health—not just with words but with actions—the more empathically you will lead. For more about this topic, please see my earlier post, To Overcome Anxiety, Manage Your Mindset.
12. Lead with confidence
A story I heard long ago that might put leading with confidence into perspective: On January 1, a monk set a New Year's resolution to become a living saint. He would tackle one virtue per month for twelve months, and before he knew it, he would reach his goal.
Fifty years later, he wrote in his journal, "Still working on January's virtue."
In a similar way, your quest to be a better leader never ends—nor should it. But that doesn't mean you can't have faith in your abilities now. In fact, you will do your team a tremendous service if you step up and lead with confidence now—not perfectly, but faithfully, flaws and all.