As buzzwords go, “leader” gets used a lot – and overuse, if nothing else, makes it easy to forget that the word means something. Leadership is specific. It carries with it some unique requirements. Anyone can be a leader, but not everyone is a leader.
The other problem is that we tend to think about leadership all wrong. We bifurcate businesses into Leaders – typically the founder or CEO – and Everyone Else. The truth is that a lot of us are leading in one way or another – from inner-office teams to volunteer work outside of the office. The trick is in learning to lead well.
Almost all of us have worked with an ineffective leader at one time or another. While that can be an education in what not to do, it’s important to focus on, think about, and remind ourselves of the habits effective leaders share in common. As we launch business ventures and build brands, it helps to have a blueprint for leadership. This is less a question of “who” you are and more a matter of “how” you are. How do you lead well? Here are 15 ways:
1. Leaders Take Responsibility
To maximize their effectiveness, a leader can’t possibly be responsible for each facet of an organization. That’s what a team is for. Nevertheless, they remain responsible to their customers, colleagues, and shareholders. A solid leader won’t shirk that obligation, and you’ll never catch them throwing another team member under the bus – even when they have to deliver bad news. Effective leaders take responsibility.
2. A Leader Sets Ambitious – but Realistic – Goals
Having a goal – or even several goals – is like a north star. It’s a way to avoid getting lost in the distractions of the day, week, or quarter. Leaders set goals to maintain focus, measure progress, and celebrate achievements. They review their goals often to remind themselves why each one is important – because a goal is about more than “what” they’re after. The goals that leaders set are attainable, but rarely without hard work, commitment, and maybe even a few breaks along the way.
3. Leaders Never Stop Learning
An effective leader is rarely the smartest person in the room (a point that is reinforced below). They tend to surround themselves with people and opportunities they can learn from. In the book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Harvard Business School Professor Dr. Amy Edmondson explains it like this: “Learning is not a one-time event or periodic luxury. Great leaders in great companies recognize that the ability to constantly learn, innovate, and improve is vital to their success.” Whether it’s from books, podcasts, conversations with colleagues or mentors, or through their own research, learning and leadership are inseparable.
4. A Leader Does Hard Things
From the outside, it’s possible to look at some of the leaders we admire and imagine their life is comparatively easy to the things we’re facing. This may be especially true if they’ve achieved some of the success we’re still working towards. Here’s the reality, though: all leaders do hard things – from negotiating a merger to parting ways with a longtime employee. The best leaders understand that hard decisions, difficult conversations, and uncomfortable moments are part of the gig. They don’t shy away when it comes to hard things.
5. Effective Leaders Schedule Downtime
Because work often does require early mornings, late nights, and a tremendous amount of bandwidth, effective leaders know their time, energy, and attention are infinite resources. That’s why they schedule their downtime – and not simply when it’s convenient. Our jobs will almost always expand to the hours we give them, so creating opportunities for rest, exercise, vacation, and time with family and friends is vital. A good leader knows that work will still be there when the workout, getaway, or dinner date is over – and they’re better because of it.
6. Leaders Know Their Story – & How to Tell It
Effective leaders know the work they do – just like the life they live – is a story. And just like any book worth reading, their story isn’t without ups and downs, joy and grief, and ultimately a reason (or reasons) for getting out of bed each morning beyond the temporary thrill of a paycheck. They’ve also honed their story and can tell it in a way that engages the people listening. If work is what a leader does, their story is why they do it. At The Main Stage, our Story Vault™ platform helps business leaders (and new leaders in the making) learn how to tell their stories in powerful ways that connect with their intended audience.
7. Effective Leaders Have Mixed Motives
Okay…we promised that this one might shock you, and maybe it already has. Let me explain. Effective leaders understand that no one is entirely altruistic. They’re suspicious of people who claim to be. Instead, leaders are upfront about their drives and desires. They may have created a life-saving product, but their idea also allows them to earn a significant income. More than one thing can be true at a time. New York Times bestselling author and Business Made Simple CEO Donald Miller writes in the book Hero on a Mission “…that when it comes to figuring out what kind of story we want to live, we should look for something that is mutually beneficial. If it sounds like I’m saying to live a life of mixed motives, it is because that’s what I’m actually saying. I don’t believe you will ever have entirely pure motives. If you say you do, I don’t believe you and don’t believe you are self-aware.” Effective leaders know this to be true. They don’t project completely pure motives, but neither do they exploit people and opportunities for their own advantage. They find mutually beneficial solutions.
8. A Leader Acts
Given the option to sit this one out or step into the action, leaders don’t hesitate to act. They know their strengths and weaknesses and affect positive change whenever and wherever they can. Does this mean effective leaders always act? Not at all. One aspect of leadership is knowing where one’s time and resources are best utilized. Still, a strong leader is prepared to act. Because of that preparation, it’s difficult to catch them off guard.
9. Leaders Practice Listening
Because effective leaders are so often in action, they recognize the need for stopping, sitting still, and hearing from the people around them. This, of course, requires some humility. At its core, listening is an acknowledgment that the speaker knows something the listener does not. Just like any other skill, listening has to be practiced to improve. Leaders get this. They receive feedback, hear from their teams, and seek to understand perspectives they may have otherwise missed.
10. An Effective Leader Manages Their Emotions
We’ve probably all experienced the kind of day that swings from good to bad somewhere between 10 AM and 2 PM. Some days may even go back and forth several times before you’ve had the chance to catch your breath. Effective leaders take this in stride. They understand the market will fluctuate. They expect obstacles and pushback. What leaders don’t do is blame people, play the victim, complain, or turn over desks. They may feel all of those emotions, but great leaders have learned how to effectively manage each one.
11. A Leader Chooses Performance Over Posturing
In our world, posturing grabs headlines, gains followers, and gets clicks. If attention is the end goal, there’s always a photographer or a chyron waiting to break the latest news. An effective leader chooses the daily grind of performance over the glitz of merely talking a big game. In business, they’re intentional about developing that same mentality in their organizations. When leaders perform, they create results. They understand that posturing can’t compete with a tangible track record.
12. Effective Leaders Offer Public Praise (& Private Criticism)
The best leaders elevate the people around them. They may choose to do so verbally, and they often make a point of doing it in front of others. Authentic public praise motivates and builds momentum – and it just makes people feel good. Effective leaders never withhold praise, and they don’t take all the credit for success either. At the same time, a good leader makes a habit of addressing problems in one-on-one moments. They don’t look for chances to publicly embarrass people, and they know criticism is likely to be received better in private.
13. Leaders Hire People Smarter Than Themselves
While fearful leaders look for employees who will fall in line and not rock the boat, effective leaders recruit and hire people who know more than they do. Pushing past the limitations of ego, an effective leader assembles teams of subject matter experts. It’s by harnessing those skills and strengths that some organizations scale so quickly. Leaders still cast a vision and work together to build a cohesive strategy, but they grow by empowering (and trusting) smart people to build an even smarter company.
14. A Leader Sets an Example That Others Can Follow
An effective leader refuses to say one thing and do another. They intuitively understand that hypocrisy will destroy a business from the inside out. Instead, they make a habit of showing up and following through. Solid leadership doesn’t operate on two sets of rules – one for the leaders and another for everyone else. Instead, their expectations for themselves and their organization are identical. Because of that, each team member has a clear example to follow.
15. Effective Leaders Build Other Effective Leaders
Ask any effective leader who has inspired them throughout their life and the answer might surprise you. There’s a good chance it’s someone you or I have never heard of – a parent, coach, teacher, or old boss – but whose impact looms large. The best leaders inspire others to lead – and to lead well. An effective leader realizes early on that their time on this planet is limited. They’ll only have so many years and so many opportunities within the time they get. Because of that, they work hard to leave a legacy behind.
The Bottom Line
Effective leaders are human, and few if any get all 15 of these points right every day. Do great leaders lose the plot sometimes? Of course. How could they not? But they never stay lost for long. As the story of your company grows, I hope these habits will inform how you lead. If one or two resonated with you, drop me a line (links below) and let me know.
If you’re ready to lead your startup with the right story and the performance to back it up, we’re eager to help. Press the home button above to learn more or start your free 14-day trial. The future of fundraising is here – only at The Main Stage.
Aishlin Harrison is the co-founder of The Main Stage, as well as an artist, musician, and passionate entrepreneur. In addition to these roles, she serves as Creative Advisor for RedCrow™, Inc., a direct investment and marketing platform for healthcare companies. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.