“A leader is someone who demonstrates what’s possible.” — Mark Yarnell
Leadership isn’t always pretty. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite. No matter if someone is a decade into their leadership role or a day, they’re equally as susceptible to costly mistakes and failures.
Hence, we are in awe when we witness a leader that just seems to flow effortlessly in their highly-effective behaviors. This isn’t by accident. And it isn’t through simply checking off boxes on a to-do list.
The leaders we admire most have a distinct way about them — an almost shocking level of preparedness in the toughest of situations.
They don’t get here overnight. They arrive by virtue of action.
The results are slow, and the recognition for said results is even slower. But here’s a little of what they do:
1. They set the table
“Leadership is taking responsibility while others are making excuses.” — John C. Maxwell
As important as it is to the success of an organization, vision-casting alone won’t get the team where it needs to go. Charting the course is critical but how to go about steering the ship is equally as important.
Great leaders establish agreements on this upfront, asking permission to hold team members accountable to be the best they can be — as opposed to just blindsiding employees with their unique (and possibly rigid) style of development. They always give their people a choice.
By having a conversation upfront with each team member and asking to hold them to the highest of standards versus telling, a sense of community is formed. Within a community, there’s a sense of freedom. Where there’s a sense of freedom, people flourish.
2. They don’t treat everyone the same, but they treat everyone with the same level of respect
Top performers will remain top performers as long as they are held to that distinct degree. The higher the level of conversation, they higher an employee will stretch.
Great leaders are cognizant of this, being careful about the type of talk each team member is exposed to. Expose a high achiever to a lower-tier discussion or expectation, and get ready to hear the brakes squeal.
However, regardless of the perceived potential of each team member, great leaders give respect — always. The goal is to help every person reach the top of their game, not necessarily the top of the organization. Employees won’t be willing to make the sacrifices required to do so if they don’t feel a tremendous amount of respect from the one calling the shots.
3. They never stop coaching
For the most effective leaders, time is precious.
As a result, it must be maximized. No matter if it’s a side conversation to get warmed up in the morning or the tail end of the day when there’s only one person left in the office, leaders take advantage. Every time they open their mouth in the direction of a team member is an opportunity to provide feedback, whether appreciative or constructive. They do this so often that it slowly shifts from feeling formal to truly caring.
Coaching doesn’t end with just the team members, either. They get away with the volume of coaching dialogue simply for the fact they are willing to tell one on themselves before anyone else. This refreshing humility opens the door for maximum intake of the message being delivered, without the muddled-up fog of emotion or resistance.
4. They invest in themselves daily
“Leadership is an opportunity to serve. It is not a trumpet call to self-importance.” — Donald Walters
For all the “miracle morning” routines available to us today, you can bet that the leader you look up to most is performing one of them.
Great leaders get that they aren’t, nor ever will be, a finished product. If they cease to take in knowledge, the by-product will be their team is withheld growth opportunities and suffers.
These people get that their action (or inaction) has a ripple effect. Whether it’s skipping one day of reading, one day of workouts, one day of clean eating or one good night’s sleep — it all has consequences spanning far beyond the individual.
Great leaders do whatever possible to put themselves in a peak state — not for their own benefit, but because the team will miss out if they don’t.
5. They learn from past mistakes, not past successes
“Being positive in a negative situation is not naive. It is leadership.” — Ralph Marston
It’s extremely valuable to celebrate the victories in your organization as they occur. A lot of time, effort and energy goes into fulfilling on a strategic game-plan and executing at a high level — and great leaders recognize this.
What they don’t do however, is get so caught up in thinking that just because something worked in the past, it’s going to work in the future. If you enter a boxing match fighting the exact same style that you did in your previous fight, you’re going to the wind knocked out of you.
Because just like a fighter, people and the market adapt.
What appear to be more timeless lessons (yet, not quite as enjoyable) are the slip-ups. The times where we fell short. The reason that biographies of successful people are so valuable to read is you get to see the failures they had on their way to the victories. You get to see the what caused them to realize their pinnacle over the course of a decade, as opposed to five years. Moreover, there’s a lot of what they did listed — but there’s just as much of what they didn’t do.
Great leaders relish in the failures because they understand that each one leaves a clue for a faster track to success.
6. They get massive buy-in from their inner circle
“Leadership usually starts with a willing heart, a positive attitude, and a desire to make a difference.” — Mac Anderson
Great leaders are still people. They aren’t machines. Which means as much as they push and stretch themselves, they don’t have enough time right out of the gate to create a deep, vulnerable relationship with every single employee.
Over time, can this occur? Sure. But maximizing the bond between them and a few key players will impact the culture twice as fast.
When I was 19 years old, I started my professional career as personal trainer. Intimidated by the prospect of developing a client base of 20 or more, I looked at it on a smaller scale. I figured if I could just get three to five clients and treat each one like I would a beloved family member, they’ll bring me the other 15.
I ended up with 30 clients.
Great leaders leverage their inner circle to spread their influence. As effective as they are, they’re still human.
7. They consult with their team before making changes that will impact them
How many standard operating procedure updates have you received in the past year?
Has your comp plan changed at all over that time?
How about alterations to PTO payouts and annual rollover?
Did anyone consult with you prior to making these changes?
If they did, you’re working for some sound leadership.
In an age where people’s expectations of their leader(s) are lower than ever (partially due to people being more cynical than ever, but still), including your team in the decision-making process goes a long way in establishing trust and commitment.
Whether or not you end up carrying out the notion they are most passionate about, the fact they were given the space to say their peace on the matter means just as much as receiving the outcome they desired most. In fact, if the option of including them on a decision they don’t want was up against excluding them on a decision they do want, the former would still breed more trust.
8. They keep their bench deep
Due to their nature of always (okay, most of the time) being in coaching mode, awesome leaders are always looking for the next department head. They get that the business won’t always hold up against life for some people and when that time comes, they need to have someone equipped for production to hand the ball off to.
Recruiting and development are the bread and butter of great leaders. This is their sweet spot. From setting the tone with the on-boarding to inspiring possibility with continuing education, great leaders are always thinking about who’s next in line.
9. They practice the “ratio of engagement”
Every team member is unique. They have different strengths and weaknesses, yes, but perhaps where they range the most is their mental fortitude.
As a team member is left to work either alone or within an environment that they know like the back of their hand, their thoughts show up brighter and more colored than usual.
Sometimes these are positive but considering we’re dealing with human beings here, it’s safe to assume many will be negative. These won’t always pertain directly to work but as we are out of alignment in one area, we are out of alignment in every area.
Most of people’s decisions to quit an organization are based primarily on emotion, not logic. Leaders get this and work tirelessly to stay in front of it. They realize that each employee has ratio of daily touches or acknowledgements that need to occur to keep the person’s mental prowess at max capacity.
For great leaders are great managers — as all management is the management of expectations.
10. They give responsibility before people are ready
Responsibility breeds empowerment. An empowered team member, even in a little over his head, will still outperform the unchallenged — regardless of the talent level.
A great leader knows to let go of the vine and let the team member make the call — even if they know it will result in a failure.
They get, on the deepest level, the value of letting one experience something for themselves and the impact it creates. This cannot be done keeping people on a leash. Giving people responsibility before they’re ready demonstrates belief and trust — two things that if absent from an organization, immediately destroy it.
11. They ask for feedback
“Great leaders don’t need to act tough. Their confidence and humility serve to underscore their greatness.” — Simon Sinek
Humility may be the single-most important trait of a great leader. Influence is not sustainable without coming from a place of modesty.
Despite being humble, great leaders are secure within themselves. And one must be incredibly secure to create a space safe enough for employees to offer constructive criticism about their leader.
It’s human nature to jerk the knee into judgment or turn on a filtered listening about someone supposedly not of the same rank as you. However, instead of glossing over the feedback from the employee, they take it for what it is.
An opportunity to bridge the gap of existence between the employee and the leader.
This doesn’t mean the leader endorses the opinion necessarily — they simply take responsibility for the thought patterns the employee created about leader and work to enroll them in a new possibility for the future.
12. They get out of the way
“You can do what I cannot do. I can do what you cannot do. Together, we can do great things.” — Mother Teresa
At a certain point, after months or even years of deliberate development from the leader, the team begins to flap their wings.
One of the most valuable actions a leader can take when his team is firing on all cylinders (and taking full responsibility on behalf of the organization) is to get the hell out of the way.
From here, they can work on a new vision while the magic unfolds before them.
13. They love their people
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
Plain and simple, this is what separates a good leader from an extraordinary leader.