10 Things Great Leaders Do
Great leaders are made, not born. The path to greatness is preceded by a long, developmental journey that is marked by successes and failures. No two paths are identical, but all of them are punctuated by a series of incremental gains in awareness, the development of hard and soft skills, and step-change growth. A new skill may be learned, a new strategy may be developed, or a new philosophy may be adopted at any stage. Through research and through our work with some of the best leaders across different industries, we have observed ten things that the best leaders practice within their teams and organizations.
1. Adopting a Strengths Based Leadership Philosophy
"If you spend your life trying to be good at everything, you will never be great at anything." - Tom Rath
Addressing and amending deficiencies in yourself and your teams is a discouraging, Sisyphean task. Unfortunately, this is the mindset that many leaders adopt. They spend time, money, and energy to shore up weaknesses. Doing so yields diminishing returns and ultimately causes leaders to exhaust themselves as their followers become discouraged and disengaged.
In stark contrast, strengths-based leaders focus intently on what they, and their team members do best. Once these strengths are identified, through either informal processes or through formal assessments like CliftonStrengths (formerly called StrengthsFinder), Strengths Deployment Inventory, or StandOut, leaders find ways to deploy them as frequently as possible. They complement this by building developmental plans that enhance strengths, rather than remediate weaknesses.
A strengths-based leadership framework is both intuitively appealing and well backed by research. Gallup studies, as well as Group Sixty’s experience and research, has shown that leaders who apply a strengths-based approach see a multitude of benefits that range from greater employee engagement and satisfaction to lower turnover and improvements to the bottom line.
2. Communicating with Impact
“The art of communication is the language of leadership.” – James Humes
The quality of communication is not inherent in the words that are spoken, it is determined by its impact. Great leaders communicate with impact by tailoring their message to fit their audience and by leveraging their own strengths.
Effective orators abound in the world of politics. Policies aside, most would agree that Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy represent two of the most impactful communicators to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Over the course of a campaign, each of them would address crowds from rural Appalachia to wealthy Los Angeles suburbs. No matter where they were, or who they were speaking to, their message was always unique. They would emote differently, change their diction or their gestures and match the content of the speech to the values and perspectives of their audience. In doing so, their message hit its target and stirred their audiences to act.
The final product remained flexible, but the source of their communication was steadfast. They spoke with clarity by drawing from their strengths. Whether they were addressing the nation, or they were staring down Khrushchev and Gorbachev, anchoring their communication to their strengths allowed them to speak with conviction and ensured that their audience would perceive their message as genuine. Their words rang true and their audience responded in kind.
3. Creating Psychological Safety
“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” – Stephen R. Covey
Trust and security are the foundation of team success. People will not make themselves vulnerable and offer risky but potentially game changing ideas when they perceive the potential for subjective criticism, condescension, and personal attacks. Teams are unlikely to develop creative, effective solutions to a problem if they feel psychologically unsafe. That is why great leaders create and maintain a psychologically safe environment for their teams that is devoid of slings and arrows launched by self-centered and politically oriented teammates. Because of this security, team members are freed to take risks and propose novel solutions.
Few workplaces on earth prize creativity and innovation as much as Google. In an extensive study dubbed Project Aristotle, they found that psychological safety was the number one predictor of team success. Teams that had a leader who created and maintained this kind of environment were more likely to deliver the transformational products and results that Google covets. For a step-by-step guide on creating a psychologically safe environment, you can read more here.
4. Listening Actively
“Don't assume, because you are intelligent, able, and well-motivated, that you are open to communication, that you know how to listen.” – Robert Greenleaf
Leaders who forge ahead without intently listening to those around them are moving into an uncertain future with an unstable foundation. Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, was acutely aware of this and made “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” one of those seven habits. Covey believed that listening was vital to leadership, and that it preempts the other components.
Active listening helps leaders accomplish two distinct goals. The first of which, as Covey pointed out, is acquiring an accurate understanding of their surroundings. Leaders are limited in their capacity to take in the big picture as their personal vantage point will never capture it in its entirety. Listening invites those around them to shed light on blind spots, thus completing and clarifying their perception. Consequently, leaders can speak and act more effectively as their actions are in accordance with a complete view of their context.
Second, and most importantly, listening conveys a vital message. When a leader engrosses themselves in the words and actions of those around them, they send a clear signal regarding the high esteem that they hold them in. This esteem catalyzes the development of robust, mutually trusting personal relationships. As a direct consequence, employee engagement increases.
5. Asking Powerful Questions
“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why.” – Bernard Baruch
When budding trial attorneys are taught how to cross-examine a witness, they are explicitly told “Never ask a question that you do not know the answer to.” This maxim is imposed because the goal of cross-examination is to coax the witness towards a specific, predetermined conclusion. Each question is designed to incrementally draw the witness closer to that destination.
Great leaders recognize that they are not lawyers, and that the people around them are not witnesses waiting to be cross-examined. They ask powerful questions instead. Powerful questions are distinguished by their capacity to prompt further discovery rather than a binary, yes or no answer. In contrast to leading questions that have a concrete goal in mind, powerful questions shed light on the unknown and have the ability to reframe a conversation and unearth new ideas. They surface assumptions, stimulate the exploration of alternatives, and change perspectives. They allow for elaboration and help bring raw, unpolished ideas and concepts to a fully realized and well-articulated end state by committing both sides to action. Instead of asking, “Will the plan you presented achieve the target objectives?” try asking, “What assumptions have you made in your plan that provide risk to achieving the required objectives?”
Simple clarifying questions are necessary and have their utility, but coupling them with powerful questions leads to unexpected answers and extraordinary results.
To explore this further, read the 50 Questions Leaders Should Ask eBook.
6. Providing Time and Space for Personal and Professional Development
"Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” – Jack Welch
Today’s competitive climate can make work a frantic affair. An ever-changing strategic landscape and endless streams of new challenges can make progress feel like a pipe dream. Overflowing inboxes and double-booked calendars make employees feel undervalued, overworked, and out of control. As burnout sets in, maintaining the status quo becomes impossible and the organization begins to regress.
To help those around them thrive in this climate, leaders must help those around them clear their calendars and restore their autonomy. We can return to Google for a model. In 2004, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.” In the same way that psychological safety helps their teams succeed, freedom and autonomy helps their employees flourish in creative undertakings.
Great leaders take this a step further by encouraging those around them to spend time focusing on their own personal and professional growth. As a result, employees begin to feel appreciated, they reciprocate the trust that is given to them, and they regain a sense of control over themselves and their jobs. In addition, they begin to experience the individual development that is a prerequisite to collective organizational success.
7. Focusing on Empowerment in Place of Dictation
“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” – George S. Patton
Aphorisms help cut through the static and refocus on what is essential. One of the best aphorisms in the world of leadership comes from Virgil, who said “They can conquer who believe they can.”
This saying has been adapted and applied by everyone from Henry Ford to David J. Schwartz. Whether they were in industry or academia, they all recognized that belief is a precursor to success. Great leaders use empowerment to generate the kind of belief that compels their teams to achieve their goals. They encourage those around them to take risks, experiment, and discover the methods that they believe are best suited to reach their own goals and the goals of the organization. They exhibit trust and signal to their subordinates that they believe in them, and that they do not need to provide them with an exhaustive, rigid set of directives. This engenders a jolt of self-confidence and sparks initiative.
Direction and dictating has its place, but it cannot substitute for an empowered workforce that is eager to probe into the unknown and discover previously unforeseen solutions. Pairing empowerment with accountability tempers the unknown and creates an ideal balance where leaders feel confident empowering their teams, and their teams can face their challenges by deploying their strengths and resolving it however they see fit.
8. Prioritizing Coaching
“Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.” – Tom Peters
The most successful leaders recognize that leadership requires more than simply managing their teams in a command and control-like manner. Leaders must step beyond the role of manager, usually limited to the direction and allocation of resources, and take on the mantle of coach. Great leaders prioritize coaching because they recognize that investing in the development of their team members will yield dividends by creating space to grow and develop. Ultimately, this cascade of leadership skills will flow further out into the organization. Coaching goes beyond technical instruction and skill development. While that is a portion of the process, it is eclipsed by the personal development that is spurred by effective coaching. As they reflect on the best coaches and educators that they encountered over the course of their lives, most people do not wax nostalgic about the way they were taught how to build a financial model or marketing plan. They focus on their coach’s genuine concern for their development and wellbeing, the awareness created through coaching conversations, and the rapid growth that occurred as a result.
By combining skill development with personal development, great leaders’ coach those around them and build teams that are dedicated and competent enough to achieve anything. You can immediately boost your efficacy as a coach by focusing and being present, listening to nuance, asking powerful questions, being curious, and acknowledging progress.
9. Changing the Goal from Reaching Consensus to Fostering Collaboration
“Consensus: “The process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?” – Margaret Thatcher
Collaboration and consensus are often conflated. The fundamental difference between the two is that collaboration is a process, while consensus is a result. Groups that reach consensus can arrive there through a variety of means that range from democracy to despotism. Groups that collaborate on the other hand engage in an ongoing process involving the free and open exchange and evolution of ideas. Great leaders foster collaboration by cultivating the appropriate environment for it to take place, where psychological safety reigns supreme, by building teams consisting of a diverse set of strengths, experiences, and perspectives and by providing structure to the process.
The first step towards collaboration is to avoid the common pitfalls that impede it. Once you have safe guarded against these, you can begin scaffolding the creative process you want to engage in. If you want to learn more about what these pitfalls are, and how you can navigate past them, read Common Pitfalls to Team Collaboration.
10. Instituting Appropriate Accountability for Themselves and Others
“Leadership is having a compelling vision, a comprehensive plan, relentless implementation, and talented people working together.” – Alan Mullaly
Leadership simultaneously requires an accurate assessment of self and an acute awareness of the external environment. Leaders must be vigilant in maintaining both if they hope to effectively keep themselves, and their teams accountable.
Accountability is the systematic evaluation of performance and the introduction of appropriate interventions to achieve desired objectives. Individuals, teams, and organizations that create specific, measurable standards facilitate the accountability process by maintaining objectivity. It is important to note that appropriate interventions include both corrections and celebrations. If performance is substandard, a great leader recognizes it, brings it to the pertinent team member’s attention, and collaborates with them to develop a strategy to correct it. If performance is superlative, great leaders intervene by recognizing and praising that individual and consider providing them with expanded responsibilities. As Ken Blanchard said, they also use accountability as a means for catching people doing something right. This recognition and praise is like quality goals in that it is specific and clearly articulated. By praising in this way, leaders help others to learn from what their colleagues did well.
By correcting mistakes and recognizing triumphs, great leaders maximize the positive impact of accountability. Unlocking this dual utility is a key differentiator between mediocre leaders, and great ones.
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