I’ve been leading people for a living since I graduated college.
The very first person I ever directly supervised had been serving in the Air Force since 1983. I wasn’t BORN until 1985. You do the math on that one.
Since 2017, I have been privileged to teach other Air Force officers how to become better leaders. I don’t really know how to measure whether or not the things I’ve tried to reach have been effective, but I know that the 84 officers who have been a part of my classroom have made ME a much better leader.
In that time, I’ve read the books, and watched the TED talks, and listened to the podcasts, but what I’ve discovered is that there’s a lot of extra noise out there about how to be a better leader. In fact, I read something that said there’s an average of four new leadership books published every day. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I do know that, if you’re like me, you can’t keep up with who the next great leadership guru is, much less what he or she has to say on the topic.
Here’s another thing you need to know about me: I am not that next great leadership guru. I don’t know anything about leading people that you can’t find in a dozen, or a hundred, other places. In fact, after being a leader, and learning about how to better lead people for more than ten years, I can confidently say that I know LESS about leading people than most of what you find in any decent leadership book on the shelves today.
Which brings up a question, I’m sure, for you: So why exactly should I keep reading?
First of all, let me say that if you’re looking for the secrets to becoming a better leader, you should stop reading now. There are no secrets. There just aren’t.
But if you’re looking for a simple, no-frills approach to leading people better, then let this short little article serve as your reminder of what it actually takes to be a good leader.
Three Simple Things It Takes To Be A Great Leader
(Not an exhaustive list!)
1. Hard Work
The first thing it takes to be a good leader is hard work. If you want to lead people, you have to meet them where they’re at, figure out what motivates them, and decide how you’re going to direct your efforts toward their growth and satisfaction as followers. It takes work to do all that. There are no shortcuts. There is only trial, error, and experience. You will spend long hours and late nights getting to know your people, getting to know your processes, and becoming an expert in your particular field. You will make mistakes, mistakes which will cost you — you, personally — time, money, and mental and emotional stress. You will, if you do your job right, be at your most successful as a leader when you are at your most invisible.
But you will grow.
You will learn the thrill of helping someone else succeed, because you understand what success means to them. You will learn the satisfaction of knowing that you are more capable, and more competent than you ever thought possible. You will become confident, not because of your position, but because of the scars that you have earned through your hard work. You will become trusted, by bosses and subordinates alike, because of those same scars. As a leader, trust and respect are earned through competence and experience. There is no substitute.
The second thing you must have to be a good leader is empathy. As a leader, it is not primarily your job to accomplish the mission. It is your job to enable your team to accomplish their mission. Their success is your success, their failure is your failure. To truly inhabit the virtues, expectations, and hopes of your team, you must have empathy. To truly grasp the vision, goals, and motivations of those that you work for, you must have empathy. To respond to, and anticipate the unarticulated needs of your followers, you must have empathy. Empathy says to those around you “I see you, I feel what you feel, and together we can work to resolve it.” A lack of empathy is a faster poison to good leadership than anything else I know of.
Finally, to be a good leader, you have to be humble. This, again, is not complicated, but it is hard. You must learn to put yourself last. You must accept that you will make mistakes, and costly ones. You must accept that you will not always know the answers. You’ve got to realize that the moment you take on a leadership position, you become a target. Others will try to undermine you, or diminish you, or steal your credit. And you have to remind yourself that it doesn’t matter. Your success or failure as a leader is not dependent on getting credit for the things you do. It isn’t dependent on having support from your boss. It definitely isn’t dependent on how well liked you are by others. The only true measure of success as a leader is whether your followers are effective or ineffective. And the fastest way to take your team from ineffective to effective is to practice humility. So, ask for help, admit that you don’t know some things, believe in your people more than you believe in yourself.
Conclusion — Take Action!
So, what now? You’ve made it to the end of this small, simple post on leadership. Now, what do you do?
Simple: You do these things! You work hard, you practice empathy and humility, and you take care of your people.
This is what is missing from so many of the best leadership advice books out there — the realization that you have a requirement to take action. This is what separates the readers from the leaders — taking action!
It’s so easy to dismiss yourself as leader by saying you don’t know enough, or you’re not ready, or you’re not qualified, or you’re not smart enough. It’s much, much harder to put all those (possibly true) things aside and take action. Each day. Without fail. Do something to move yourself and your team closer to your goal, whatever that goal is.
That’s really the secret to leadership: Simple principles, coupled with action, will win the day over all the knowledge in the world, endlessly tweaked and refined, but never acted upon, every. single. time.
So go DO the thing!
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