46 Things Great Leaders Do (Field-Notes on Spotting Great Leadership)

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I have observed many leaders in my time. I have worked for many different bosses from my first job as a cashier and driver for a bottle store, to the bank manager I worked for as a student, to the many different leaders I’ve worked for in my career. And I have met and engaged with many, many other leaders, in as many different fields. I have watched wonderful leaders step down and seen young go-getters step up. I’ve seen leadership successes, transitions, challenges, and failures.

I am not a leader. At least, I am not an obvious leader. When I do assume any kind of leadership position, I prefer to be so subtle about giving people ideas they think are their own that I hardly make a blip on the radar. I’m not a leadership guru (perish the thought). And I’m also not particularly awed by those people who do have a title, and will happily chat to them as if they have none (something I think the best of them appreciate).

What follows are my thoughts on what makes a great leader gleaned from my years of watching them closely.

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  • Contrary to what many believe, leadership is a skill that can be taught and honed like any other skill. The belief that great leaders are born is wrong. They are forged.
  • The two primary goals of leadership are to provide a vision and then to get things done. But a blinkered devotion to these goals leaves out the most important part of actually achieving them: the people at the coalface who do what needs to be done.
  • Too many mediocre leaders get stuck either on crafting a vision or on the practical challenges of getting things done. The best do both. Simultaneously and consistently.
  • A careful balance between short term focus and long term objectives is the mark of an accomplished leader. They manage the day-to-day challenges in the context of the bigger picture – and vice versa.

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  • If all a leader is doing is putting out fires as they happen, they are not really leading, merely managing.
  • Good leaders never confuse wisdom with pop psychology when trying to understand people. The former is based on personal insight and observation, the latter on superficial jargon.
  • The best leaders I’ve known lead not from the front and not from the back, but from the middle.
  • Great leaders lead with gentleness, compassion, and humility.

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  • True leaders know that a sincere pat on the back does wonderful things.
  • Difficult decisions will always meet with resistance. But if there is only resistance, perceptive leaders know there is something seriously wrong.
  • Leaders know that shifting the goal-posts too often creates tension and mistrust.
  • Having high expectations and providing the requisite scaffolding are essential to good leadership. The former does not work without the later.

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  • Savvy leaders don’t rely exclusively on the lessons taught by other great leaders. They understand survivorship bias and look just as often at the lessons which can be learned by leadership failures.
  • Say the greats: Praise in public. Chastise in private.
  • Having at least a basic understanding of what each and every person on your team does is critical to good leadership. And knowing enough about what they do so as not to inadvertently undermine or belittle them is even more so.

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  • Leadership is a job description, not just a title. Leaders do not demand respect because of who they are but rather they earn it because of what they do.
  • The wise leader knows: Sometimes we all get it wrong. Apologize, fix, and move on. And they allow others to do so too.
  • Exceptional leaders always ask questions.
  • Adept leaders ask for help rather than demanding it.

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  • Canny leaders work to mold new leaders with diverse styles – often very different to their own. (And they certainly do not only develop these leaders exclusively in their own image.)
  • Inspiring leaders are always learning, absorbing, and thinking.
  • There are many types of leadership. Some are easy to spot, others less so. It is the weak leader who bemoans the lack of leadership potential in others – because they cannot identify any style but their own.
  • Astute leaders are as careful about what they don’t say as they are about what they do say.
  • The accomplished leader has a knack of knowing when to give a quick, decisive answer and when to consider things carefully.

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  • Leaders answer correspondence from their staff. No matter who they are. Ignoring something as simple as an email creates a sense of limbo and discomfort in team members in the short term, and growing feelings of resentment later.
  • Surrounding yourself with acolytes and ‘yes men’ has more to do with ego than with leadership. Fearless leaders have the courage to listen to criticism and dissenting voices. In fact, they welcome divergent viewpoints.
  • Discerning leaders don’t say “My door is always open.” This is not practically possible. But they do go out of their way to make time for their staff.
  • Great leaders trust. And are trusted.
  • Astute leaders prize experience as much as they do potential. And they strive to build a team with the right mix of both.

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  • Leaders spend as much time and effort in retaining key staff as they do recruiting top candidates.
  • Micromanagement is the clearest sign of a lack of effective leadership.
  • A focus on real results and meaningful outcomes is more important to a leader than making things look good for the marketing team. Even if she heads the marketing team.
  • Leaders defuse tension and conflict by listening carefully and actively.
  • Virtuoso leaders do not horde information or obsess about confidentiality. They are open and transparent.
  • First-rate leaders avoid making sweeping criticisms of their team when a only few have transgressed.
  • Involved leaders roll up their own sleeves and get hands-on when circumstances require it.
  • Master leaders see members of their team as individuals – not just members of the team.
  • Visionary leaders always have one eye on the future: they paint a practical and realistic vision of the future that, while challenging, is still attainable.
  • Sagacious leaders do not believe in hierarchies. They prefer responsibility matrices. They do, however, believe in coordinating communication between the strands of each overlapping matrix so as to avoid miscommunication.
  • Really great leaders are not people-pleasers. They have the courage to say no. This is one of the trickiest parts of leadership. Saying no assertively when an idea or request does not fit in with the mission and objectives of an organization, while maintaining both an innovative atmosphere and staff motivation is tricky.
  • Accomplished leaders are aware and alert and active. They seem to be everywhere and they seem to know what everyone is doing. In a good way.
  • Great leaders are willing to share your successes with you and to get excited with you when you achieve something wonderful.
  • Respected leaders help members of their teams to create personal goals that mesh with the grand vision of the organization.
  • Real leaders know how to relax and how to stay a person away from work.
  • Leaders like to solve problems. Which is why so many of them play chess.
  • Great leaders assess, reassess, and reflect regularly. As the world changes, they adjust.
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