05 Aug Being a Better Leader
How is a good leader able to lead effectively? In this article, I explore the role that influence, persuasion and authenticity play in being a good leader. This is the second video in the Leadership Series. Please remember to click the red button to Subscribe to my channel.
This is the second in my series of articles exploring Leadership. Click here for the first.
In my last article, I discussed how leadership is about much more than authority derived from position in the organizational hierarchy. In this one, I want to drill down into some of the elements of what makes a good leader. I’m particularly going to focus on influence and persuasion, which I believe are foundational to leadership. Good leaders use their influence and powers of persuasion to win over people to their cause, and get organizations aligned to a common set of objectives, so that all are pulling in the same direction.
But how do they do this?
For someone to be able to influence us, or persuade us to go in a direction we might not otherwise want to, they usually need to be someone we trust (or at least respect), someone who can motivate and inspire us; they are usually people that we look up to, or aspire to be like. If you think about your own experience of good leaders, both in the public space and in your personal life, the chances are that they’re people you look up to in some way.
That doesn’t mean they have to be perfect, of course. Steve Jobs, for example, was an incredibly driven and inspiring leader who radically changed the technology landscape but I believe it’s generally agreed that he was not actually someone you would want to work for, having mercurial mood swings, and treating people with little respect or consideration.
So, to become a good leader, we need to establish ourselves as someone who can be trusted and respected. One of the easiest ways of achieving this is simply to act as a role model, consistently demonstrating the behaviors you want to see in your team. A leader’s influence extends beyond the ability to inspire people to a cause – it can also drive people to emulate behaviors. You need to be very careful what behaviors you demonstrate, as these will often be reinforced by the organization. A good friend of mine had a great phrase for this, “Apple trees grow apples”, simply meaning that the people in an organization tend to reflect the attitudes and behaviors of their leaders.
Another key thing that many good leaders have is authenticity – being genuine, and unapologetically themselves, owning their own faults as well as their strengths. This enables people to relate to you, and build their trust in you, but showing that level of authenticity can also be a bit scary for a leader. It requires you to open yourself up and be vulnerable to others, show the real you, including your weaknesses. Without being fully engaged, you run the risk of being seen as aloof and standoffish – not the type of person most people want to follow.
Being able to articulate a clear vision of the future – what the world will look like once we get where we are going – is also critical. This doesn’t mean that you need to be a great orator, or a really gifted writer; there are many ways of getting a message across. The important thing is that the leader understands the vision, and can explain it in a way that helps people feel its relevance to them. It is sometimes more important to speak with passion and authenticity, from the heart, than to use exactly the right word. People can often be moved to feel things strongly when you show your own strong feelings about a subject. I believe the quote below strikes to the core of this concept.
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.
It’s crucially important that this goal, whatever it is, is something that others can relate to, and feel a part of. As a leader, it is your responsibility to make sure that everyone involved is able to understand how their actions and behaviors help move us closer to this goal. The objective here is to be inclusive. It is not “your” goal; it is “OUR” goal. That could mean a small team, a larger organization, or multiple groups of people working together. Collectively, WE have to own this goal and want to drive towards it. An effective leader helps us all understand what that future would look like, what it would mean to us all, how we would feel when we have achieved this, etc. – which will help us want to drive towards that outcome together.
One of the most striking illustrations of leadership I’ve seen is the analogy of the conductor and the orchestra (thank you, Columbia Business School). In an orchestra, each musician is an accomplished professional perfectly capable of operating independently. In fact, the orchestra as a unit can operate quite effectively without a conductor, playing the piece in time and in tune, without someone at the front waving a stick around. So why have a conductor there at all? What purpose do they serve?
The conductor focuses on the bigger picture – the performance of a piece of music as the they envision it – helping the orchestra as a whole to achieve more than each performer could do independently. A good conductor does not try to tell each of the musicians the best way to play their instruments, but trusts in their ability. The musicians do their part in driving towards the greater objective, with the conductor operating at a higher level, guiding, nudging, encouraging, shaping and nurturing the orchestra and the composition towards a common goal. This ability to empower and trust others, while providing guidance and support, is a vital piece of the leadership puzzle.
It is important to understand that leadership is a privilege, perhaps even a gift, given to you by the people who follow you, and can be easily taken away again. The mere fact that you have authority does not mean that people will automatically follow you. They may do what they are told, based on your authority, but that isn’t the same as them being bought-in and committed team members, sold on the common purpose, and willing to raise a hand when things start to go wrong.
I fundamentally believe that all leaders have a duty of care and responsibility for the teams who place their trust in them, to guide and help them through challenges and obstacles. As leaders, we must take that responsibility very seriously. Sometimes, you can take care of the bigger things by simply looking after the little things; in this case, if you have a committed and trusting team, they will many times help you to lead them through to success.
So, understanding all this, what can you do to be a better leader?
Well, the fact that you are reading this means that you’re already interested in becoming a better leader, and are open to learning about it. That’s a great start!
In the sections below, I’ve listed some simple thoughts and ideas that have been helpful to me, and a few links to relevant material. I would also highly recommend Columbia Business School’s Advanced Management Program. It really helped me to think about my role and what I need to do to be the best leader I can be – and helped me make some great friends, too!
- Ask Questions
Ask questions rather than make statements – this is easy to do, and gives others the opportunity to show value and demonstrate expertise
- Seek Feedback
Listen – really LISTEN – to a broad cross-section of people. Regularly seek feedback, not just from people who “like” you, and don’t be defensive. Take whatever you can from the feedback to improve the way you behave and work.
- Give people the “Why?”
Give people the underlying reason they should do something – this helps you get what you need – rather than just what you asked for – because people then understand the context. This also relates people’s actions with the bigger picture, reinforcing their role in driving the outcome
- Be your true self
Show your true self every day at work, and don’t be afraid to feel a little vulnerable.
To build trust, you must also extend trust, which involves risk. Without that trust, however, you cannot operate as a highly effective team.
- Learn about yourself
Take a personality test to learn more about your leadership style and interactions – I would recommend something like the Big 5 personality test, but there are other simpler ones. For example, here are my test results from plum.io. All of these tests, in my opinion, give you a sense of your tendencies, and areas that you can focus on improving.