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Anna Muir | 13 December 2017

What you need to change now to be a great leader

Type “quotes on leadership” into Google and you’ll get 41,100,000 results in 0.58 seconds.

I haven’t read through them all, obviously, but I have done a fair amount of reading on leadership and a definition that stood out to me when I wasn’t even looking for it was Sheryl Sandberg’s in her book Lean In.  She says that “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence”.

Too often we see managers trying to get others to make them look good and/or holding on so tight that when they are not there, everything falls down. This is not leadership.

So, what can you do right now to start being a great leader?  These are my top 8 thoughts from my endless reflection on leadership.

1) Stop thinking you have to know everything

The best leaders are not technical experts.  They don’t have to have the answers to all the questions, but they know who in their team knows the answers and they know how to get those people to deliver the best answers.  Too often, we put technical experts into leadership positions and they fail. This is because they have become a technical expert by doing it their way and being the best.  When they come to try to lead others, they expect them to do it their way and get frustrated when they don’t, can’t or won’t. Leadership is about enabling others to reach the answers in their own way – making others better as a result of your presence.

2) Stop trying to do the work yourself

I have seen time and again the blurring of lines in organisations when managers get too involved in the work of their teams, re-do all the work, or prescribe the way that work is done. There is no way that you can do everything yourself, and who are you to say that it is the best way because it is your way? Teams need to know that they are empowered to deliver great results in a way that works for them. Sure, many people like guidance. So guide, don’t do. Work needs to continue when you aren’t there, encourage people to respond in a way that they know is right because you have set the direction previously –making sure that impact lasts in your absence.

3) Start bringing your whole self to work

How many people have I heard say, “I’m a different person outside of work”? Why is it that people feel that they need to be a significantly toned-down version of themselves or wear a mask when they are at work? There is no distinction between work and home anymore, it’s how we integrate the two that makes the difference. People want to be able to relate to you, and know who they are working with.  Authenticity along with consistency should be everything to a great leader.

4) Be a bit vulnerable

In a similar vein, showing that you don’t have all the answers and that you might not get it right all the time, makes you far more relatable and encourages those who you lead to push the boundaries and deliver greater results without the pressure to be perfect. Be prepared to go outside your comfort zone sometimes.  Remember that you aren’t a leader unless people are prepared to follow you – give them a reason to.

5) Ask questions to understand

People like to feel that they have been heard.  And we all like to have relationships that go beyond the superficial.  The only way you are genuinely going to get to know people is if you not only ask questions, but then ask more to ensure you deeply understand what it is that they are saying.  It is a fallacy that you have to maintain distance with your people.  I’m not saying that you have to be best friends, rather that you know who they are, what they stand for, where their strengths lie.  Not only will it make it easier to communicate on a day to day basis, but they will work with you in a different way – intrinsically motivated to do better.

6) Communicate the priorities and stick to them

Sometimes everything can come across as important and urgent – focus on what actually is. This wouldn’t be a blog on leadership without some mention of communication, but it is truly the thing that matters the most to people.  And it is how and what you’re communicating that is so important.  Everyone is bombarded with information these days – so don’t communicate information, that’s what the internet’s for! Instead, give that information meaning, which then enables conversations about what matters to your people.  Help them to feel a sense of purpose in what they do and know that their contribution counts.

7) Be a Myth Buster

I once did an exercise with a group of senior leaders and asked them openly to list all the myths that existed in the organisation and as a team we discussed them to either dispel them or validate they reason that they did exist.  It was a very enlightening exercise and one that I would encourage everyone to do.  Situations turn into myths when they are not addressed at the time and left to fester or dealt with behind a shroud of secrecy.  Transparency is a critical factor in being authentic and communicating effectively.  Seek out the myths, ask people what it is that they want to know but might not want to raise directly.  Own the difficult conversations where people may not like what they are hearing but it is reality.  Remember that as a leader you may have to deal with things that don’t increase your popularity, that’s part of the gig – it’s not about being liked, it’s about gaining respect and respect comes in buckets if you deal with challenging situations in a genuine way.

8) Be effective

All of the above won’t mean anything unless you can then translate it into action.  Going back to my second point, that does not mean doing everything for yourself.  What it means is that when you have to, you make good decisions without second guessing yourself, you know how to problem solve involving the right people, you recognise and seek out opportunities that will take your business to the next level, you know how to select and work with talented people, and above all else, you know your strengths and you use them.

The bottom line in all of this is stop thinking leadership doesn’t matter and start acting like it does. Whether you are in a leadership position in an “official capacity” or simply because you know that you have a greater role to play in supporting others, know that what you do on a day to day basis impacts those around you – make sure that impact is positive.

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