What Makes a Good Leader? The Mini-Guide


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David had been passed over for two promotions.

This, despite his efforts to continue his education and training, and despite a reputation for reliable leadership.

The jobs went to two far less qualified team members under the assumption that seniority automatically beget leadership. People privately whispered condolences to David, but it wasn’t long before his team was struggling and splintering under the poor leadership of these two men.

If David’s fellow team members hadn’t been truly sorry before, they were now.

The new leaders insisted on weekly meetings that lasted four hours and accomplished nothing, holding onto the idea that a meeting was important for meeting’s sake. Neither reliably showed up to the office, sometimes arriving late or leaving early. They passed the work they didn’t want to do to the team, disguising it as an “opportunity to learn”, burdening and stressing the already over-worked team. They placed personal business over the work they were being paid to do. They made emotional decisions that got them in trouble with their superiors, passing that heat down to the rest of the team.

And the worst part?

The rest of the team still came to David.

They complained to him about the leaders. They asked him how to do things. They asked how they ought to respond to situations. They entrusted him to solve problems their leaders kept avoiding. They left it to him to speak up on their behalf during meetings. Service providers, contract workers, and nearly everyone outside of the team got into the habit of contacting David when they needed to get something done, instead of the designated team leaders.

I’m doing their job but they’re getting the big paycheck! David thought angrily one evening as he drove home from work.

As David learned, being a good leader has little to do with an assigned job title.

A Leader Is More Than A Title

Too often, we associate a leader with a particular job or organizational title. The manager is the leader, surely, or someone up in the C-suite.

But people have a natural way of ferreting out who the real leader is, and turning to them no matter what the title is, and that’s exactly what happened in the case of David (which, by the way, is a true story I heard from a friend).

You can call a horse a cow, but that won’t make it so.

True leadership is much like social media in that social influence–how you connect and influence people–has more weight than the authority or power you have been assigned or lay claim to. Good leaders have qualities about who they are and what they do that supercede any job title placed on their head. Senior executives are merely that; they aren’t necessarily a good leader.

A Leader Is More Than A Personality Type

For some reason, we think good leaders have a particular kind of personality type.

A good leader has to be a take-charge individual, domineering and charismatic and god-like, always in control and understanding and knowing all things, right?

Some great leaders might be like that, but so are some terrible leaders. Quiet, calm, and community-oriented personality types can also lead just as well as that top-down personality approach. Each personality has the potential to lead or to abuse a position of leadership.

What Makes A Good Leader?

Good leaders behave a certain way. They treat people a certain way.

In other words, good leadership is an active process; it’s all about the actions they do, not the words they say. It isn’t a title or personality type, as we’ve discussed. It’s something else entirely.

Pete Drucker has a definition of a leader that is both obvious and startling: “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.”

Drucker has hit on something, but this statement is only true as long as the followers are true followers, and not forced.

Remember, someone who is promoted to be a leader will have followers by default, but are they true followers? Leadership cannot be merely assigned, but must be earned. So the question becomes: what kind of person will people follow?

In David’s case, he had qualities that made people come to him and follow his lead, even if he wasn’t the designated leader, and even if they weren’t aware they were turning to him to lead.

Inspire people to do their best.

There is an almost intangible quality of good leadership that is hard to create through any specific training, and it involves inspiration.

Good leaders inspire people to do their best without any coercion, threat, or other power play.

  • Put others first. You are like the bit in the horse’s mouth. You are not the point. Your team, and the work they are going to do, are. Put them first. Let them have the publicity, the accolades, the amazing experiences.
  • Don’t blow your own horn. Forget your ego. Stop parading your own success or making sure your team knows how great you are. Your actions will speak louder than this kind of behavior, anyway.
  • Avoid using fear. You can get people to act out of fear and coercion, and you might get initial results, but you’ll kill any true loyalty or inspiration. Fear works only as long as your team allows it to. Encouragement and rewards are a better way to get your team to act.
  • Help your team succeed. We all like to win. Your team wants to experience success. Know what winning looks like and figure out how to get your team there. They’ll love you for it.
  • Keep your emotion steady. Don’t be a maniac. You can be too positive, too negative, too indifferent–find a steady middleground. Your emotions trickle down to the team. Your extremes are going to be amplified by the team.
  • Be a good communicator. I’ll talk about this more later, but you need to speak up as well as listen. People connect with other people, and they do it through communicating.

Always respect other’s time.

Time is a valuable commodity. Good leaders know better than to waste the time of the people they are leading.

That means both on the clock and off.

Good leaders don’t hold pointless meetings, and when they do have meetings, they keep them moving and on task. Good leaders don’t insist that team members use their personal time to get things done for the team, particularly if they don’t allow team members do take care of occasional personal business during work hours. Good leaders don’t waste their team’s time with policies and procedures that make it more difficult for work to get done.

One of the most frustrating things for David’s team was endless meetings in which nothing was accomplished. Having our time used up with no tangible result is frustrating for the team, and also trains them to spend their time foolishly.

Being a wise steward of other’s time is how a leader teaches the team to value it in their own work.

Measure the right things.

Leaders are usually tasked with getting people towards a goal, and they often answer to people higher than they as to how well they’re doing to that end. This means you need to measure something in order to show progress. Do you know what to measure?

Are you measuring hours or results? Are you measuring sales or customer retention?

Leaders may feel pressure to measure or increase something that is tangentially related to the ultimate goal of the team, and withstanding that pressure is tough. Measuring the wrong thing makes you not only lose sight of the goal, but puts stress on your team as they try to both meet the goal and these peripheral benchmarks.

Walk your own talk.

No one likes a leader who insists that people do as he says, not as he does. A good leader lives by the same rules and expectations laid out for the team.

Part of David’s struggle was the sense that he was doing work that ought to have been the leader’s job, but wasn’t getting paid for it. His leaders were expecting the team to carry the burden that they didn’t want, and it was leading to gossip and dissension within the team.

What you expect of your team, do yourself. The rules that govern your team must govern yourself. A good leader must have integrity and be honest in all things.

Build your team in every way possible.

A good leader looks to build up the team, not their own reputation.

Training is a huge part of it. Good leaders make regular training available (and even required) to make sure each team member is as qualified as they can be. This gives team members confidence about themselves.

Mixing generations and skill sets advantageously also matters. Segregating by age groups and personality types might make leading a diverse team easier, but it doesn’t strengthen the team. Unless you mix your team and help them learn to work together, there will be weakness in the team.

Giving individual team members a sense of purpose is important, too. Does each person feel like their job matters in the big picture? Have you done a good job showing and explaining how important each person is to the larger goal?

Care more about your team than yourself.

Good leaders aren’t looking out for themselves. They’re looking out for their team.

It is surprising how many people view positions of leadership as an opportunity to merely get a pay increase and work decrease, or to enjoy prominence. Being a leader doesn’t mean you have less work to do. On the contrary, good leadership is hard work that your team gets credit for.

As a good leader, you are most concerned about the greater good, and that isn’t about you. The moment you start thinking about yourself and how you can capitalize on being the leader, your team will cease to be inspired by you (and may even feel derision towards you) because you are no longer interested in leadership, but in power.

In leadership, altruism is more valuable than narcissism.

Communicate to be understood.

Communication is what leaders live and die on. You can blame your team for not understanding you, but the onus is always on the leader. A good leader knows how to communicate and be understood specific to the team.

Author Travis Bradberry has a list of ways good leaders communicate with their team. I’ve added a few to his list:

  1. Know your audience. In other words, know who you are talking to. Do they understand jargon? Do they need to know all the details or just what applies to them? Are you giving them orders during the busiest time of their day? Talk to your team in a way they are able and receptive to hear.
  2. Read body language. Subordinates don’t always verbalize what they’re really thinking, but their body language can tell you a lot. Have you learned to read body language? Are you around your team in a variety of settings so you learn how they act depending on different feelings?
  3. Be honest without being cruel. It is good for leaders to be direct and honest with their team. That is part of respecting their time. However, bad leaders hide behind “I’m just being honest” when they are being cruel. If you know a team member receives criticism poorly, for example, find a way to communicate it positively. Being honest should never tear a person down. It should always open a door to improvement and encouragement.
  4. Speak authoritatively. Followers want to think that their leader knows more than they do. This lets them trust the leader. This may mean you need to be constantly learning to stay ahead of trends. It may mean you need to continue your education to provide “proof” that you are still the one who knows. And it may even mean that when you’re not sure, you still communicate in a way that is direct and without caveats. By no means should you ever communicate in a way that leaves open a door for you to retreat. Stick your neck out and be in charge.
  5. Talk to people, not faceless groups. Your team is made up of individuals. You should communicate directly with them as that. Whether you’re literally one-on-one, or you are speaking to a large group, make eye contact and speak as if directed to individual people.
  6. Be a listener. When someone is talking to you, are you listening or are you thinking of what you’ll say next when they stop to take a breath? A good leader actually listens. A good leader encourages feedback and listening opportunities.
  7. Admit mistakes. Good leaders aren’t afraid to apologize or admit that they made a mistake. They aren’t hesitant to communicate this to their team.
  8. Root out bad communication. Good leaders are quick to end any gossip or bad communication that is happening in their team. If they have bad news to deliver, they deliver it honestly and as quickly as possible so that their team doesn’t have to stew in fear and rumor.
  9. Communicate proactively. Good leaders communicate as often as necessary (but no more) to keep their team pointed to the goal. They know too much communication is superfluous, but that a lack of instruction and discussion allows a team to go off the rails.
  10. Understand how others see you. Being self aware isn’t a selfish thing. You need to understand how people see you in order to understand how to communicate with them. Does your team see you as a control freak? How can you change your communication style to change this?
  11. Be flexible in how you lead. As times change, we look for different types of leaders. When situations are frightening or the news is bad, we look for a more autocratic leader to take charge and fix things. When times are good, we look for a more community-oriented and cooperative leader. Pay attention to the dynamics that might be changing and that might require you to shift leadership styles.

Remember who is under your care.

Leadership is tough; you will have powers pulling from every direction. You might have to answer to higher management, stockholders, customers, the press–but as a leader, you aren’t responsible for them. You are responsible for the people following you.

Make decisions based on who you are responsible for: your followers, your team.

And if you realize your decisions must answer to someone else, understand you might not be the true leader of the team. Someone else will be or must be.

Their needs to be a leader who is an advocate for the team. This is the reason for multiple levels of management. Fight for your team. Take blows for your team. Protect your team. Advocate for your team. They are trusting you to do so, and if you do, they will gladly follow your leadership.

In short, good leaders are people who have a kind of influence that make others want to follow them. Good leaders empower and build their followers so that they point in the same direction and achieve something greater than they, or their leader, could do on their own.

If you’re lacking in your interpersonal and leadership skills, do something about it. Get training, learn from experience, and commit to making changes. Good leadership isn’t accidental. It is something you pursue on purpose.

What Makes a Good Leader? The Mini-Guide