People have high, and often conflicting, expectations of leaders. At once, we expect leaders to be reasonable but passionate, decisive but inclusive, visionary but explicit, and powerful but humble. We also want leaders who are rational but emotionally intelligent, caring but impartial, and profit-driven but people-oriented. The list of expectations is so long and contradictory that the aspiring leader is right to ask, “Where on earth do I start?!”
Here are six actions that budding leaders can take to point their leadership in the right direction:
1. Answer the Holy Question
Here are the four most important words that you’ll ever learn in the English language: What do you want? People will follow you to the extent that you provide a clear vision of a better future you can help them reach. But you have to start with a clear vision of what you aim to achieve through the application of your leadership influence. What, exactly, appeals to you about leading others? Why would anyone want to be led by you? What good do you hope to do on behalf of others?
2. Focus on Them
Leadership is not about the leader. It’s about those being led. A leader is deemed successful based on the results that the people being led achieve. It’s tempting for newbie leaders to spend time hobnobbing with leaders who are more senior to them on the organizational ladder. You’ll go farther faster by dedicating time with the people whose results determine your success…the people you’re leading.
3. Get Ready for Mistakes
Rookie leaders blow up when mistakes are made. Considering how often mistakes are made in any organization, budding leaders should get a handle on how mistakes are handled. People you lead will lose clients, get the data wrong, come in over budget, or drop the ball in some other way. Don’t explode or mentally write the person off. Be mindful that how you handle (or mishandle) mistakes will set an example for others to follow.
“There is no more powerful influencer on the culture of a workplace than the behavior of its leaders.”
4. Know Their Goals
As a leader, you’ll be under a lot of pressure to advance the goals of the people above you. Some leaders get so obsessed with the goals of their bosses that they neglect the goals and aspirations of the people they are leading. People have a right to grow and develop under your leadership. But you don’t have a right to dictate the terms of that development. Converse with each person you lead to understand what they want to get out of their job, role, and career. The sweet spot is when you can align the goals of the organization with the career goals of the people you’re leading.
5. Nudge Toward Discomfort
People don’t grow in a zone of comfort. They grow, progress, and develop in a zone of discomfort. As a leader, your job is to provide tasks and opportunities that stretch people beyond what they already know – which, for them, will be uncomfortable. The trick is to move people enough outside of their comfort zones that they are growing, but not so far out that they are petrified with fear. You’ve gotten it right when people learn to be comfortable with discomfort.
6. Express Sincere Gratitude
You may say that you value people, but if you constantly move up deadlines, rarely ask for their opinions, take credit for their good work, set unrealistic goals, and don’t say “thank you” for their hard work, then you don’t really value them. And they know it. Remember, they are the ones who will determine whether or not you’re successful as a leader. So get used to saying these words like you mean it: Thank you!
“When you’re as accessible as a stone obelisk, your people will secretly wish for your failure. Conversely, when people care about you as a leader, they’ll strive harder to help you succeed.”
Leading others is not easy. You’ll have to balance the needs of the people above you with the needs of the people you’re leading. You’ll have to deal with mistakes, complaints, and idiosyncratic personalities. But it is also rewarding. Your leadership influence will advance the goals of your organization and bring about career growth and advancement for the people you’re leading. When it’s all said and done, you’ll become a better person in the process of contributing to the betterment of the lives of others.