How Not to Suck as a Leader

boss vs. leader

Image Source: American Salon

You are not alone, although it often feels that you are. According to the Small Business Administration, 78.5 percent of the nearly 28 million small businesses in the U.S. are individually owned and run by the owner, without any employees.

Many of you are already leading teams or have employees working for you. Even if you aren’t doing so now, the odds are pretty good that you’ll need to start building your team as your business grows and you find yourself unable to manage the work by yourself. After all, small businesses provide the majority of all jobs and 66% of net new jobs since the 1970s.

There’s much advice online about leadership, not to mention the many thousands of books published on the subject. Unfortunately, too many people confuse leadership and management.

As you build and lead your teams, how can you ensure that you don’t suck as a leader?

I’ve worked for midsize law firms (I practiced law for 13 years before founding crowdSPRING), counseled hundreds of small and large companies around the world, and launched numerous startups (crowdSPRING, Startup Foundry, Respect, Quickly Legal and Curio). I’ve worked with a few remarkable leaders and managers and also worked with many who were average or even worse, mostly ineffective.

Here are 5 tips to help you succeed (based on my own experience) :

1. Understand the difference between being a manager and a leader

If you’ve been studying how to be a great boss, you’ve probably seen a lot of advice on how to manage people, but little on how to lead them. Unfortunately, many people confuse the two concepts. Seth Godin, in his book Tribes, explains the difference:

Management is about manipulating resources to get a known job done … Managers manage a process they’ve seen before, and they react to the outside world, striving to make that process as fast and as cheap as possible. Leadership, on the other hand, is about creating a change that you believe in.

My thesaurus says the best synonym for leadership is management. Maybe that word used to fit, but no longer. Movements have leaders and movements make things happen.

Leaders have followers. Mananagers have employees.

Managers make widgets. Leaders make change.

Peter Drucker famously summarized this by stating that there’s a difference between doing things right (management) and doing the right things (leadership).

The most successful companies (and leaders) make sure that there’s a balance of good leadership and good management. As I wrote previously, “Strong leadership without strong management can result in chaos and inefficiency. Strong management without strong leadership can result in tunnel vision and paralysis.”

I talk about some of the differences in the short video below.

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2. Lead by example, not by title

The most remarkable leaders share one common and important trait and it isn’t their title. True leadership is earned through respect, admiration and trust from the team. Calling yourself a CEO doesn’t make you an effective leader. Writing a mission statement that you ignore in your hiring and firing decisions doesn’t make you an effective leader.

True leaders lead by example, not by title.

Steve Jobs explained this another way: “you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy.” Here’s a wonderful short video in which Steve Jobs talks about managing people and his leadership style:

Leadership by example is especially important when you’re hiring the best people who often are smarter than you are at the tasks you’re asking them to do.

In fact, the real leader on a team sometimes isn’t even the person with the title. When most people on a team tend to approach the same person for help and input, when the team quiets down to listen when one person speaks, when it’s clear one person has nearly everyone’s respect – those are all signs of leadership. Ultimately, someone else on your team may have assumed an implicit leadership role and it’s up to you to decide whether to formalize that change. Only the true leader can allow such a change to happen.

Often, ineffective leaders will try to hold on to power and refuse to let anyone else lead. They’ll micro-manage, question everything, and frustrate their teams to the point when people start leaving. The smartest leaders will accept that their personal vision should take a back seat to allow the vision of the person who’s become the de facto leader of the team to move forward.

3. Remove obstacles for your team

One of the most important things you can do to empower your team is to remove obstacles that stand in their way. Whether you run a startup, small business, an agency, or a Fortune 1000 company, your team is encountering daily obstacles that often make it impossible for the team to efficiently move forward. For example, your team might not have the right resources (funding, people, technology), might be waiting for approvals (from you or others), or might not have a clear direction.

Let me share two short examples from my own experience to help illustrate why this is important.

More than a year ago, we had some management changes at one of my companies and I ended up working more closely with a team that had been led by someone else. In the first several days after this transition, I talked to every person individually (I favor walking one-on-ones and we ended up walking around Chicago and talking for an hour). There were many issues for us to discuss, but my most important goal was to identify obstacles. I asked each person to tell me the three biggest obstacles they faced during the prior year. Each of these conversations took place in the morning. Before noon the same day, I worked to remove each of the obstacles. This not only empowered the team, but encouraged them to be proactive and get in front of potential issues that could block progress.

I learned that the team was afraid to mention obstacles to their boss because they were largely ignored. So rather than being proactive about removing obstacles, the team had become apathetic.

How can you remove obstacles for your team? Here’s what I do with my senior people on a weekly basis. We have a short (typically walking), one-one-one where we discuss the results from the prior week and the key goals/initiatives for the coming week. The most important question I ask each of them (in advance of our meeting) is how I can help them to do their job better. This is their opportunity to identify blockers/obstacles and to get ahead of potential problems before they happen. The single most important thing I can do as a leader after each meeting – and I prioritized doing this – is to solve (or begin solving) each obstacle.

Some of you might hesitate to reset your priorities for the day to focus on removing obstacles. After all, the things you planned to do might be important and you feel that it’s inefficient to interrupt your planned workflow. But this type of thinking can be a trap. Howard Tullman, CEO of Chicago’s 1871 and a respected entrepreneur and leader, recently explained:

The best entrepreneurs try to steer a steady course forward through constantly changing and challenging circumstances. They are fiercely protective of their time and they try to keep anyone else from controlling their calendar or their inbox. (See Slow Down, It Might Save Your Business.) And they do have one more trick in their bags that makes all the difference. They know that they don’t have to finish what they start. And you don’t either– at least for right now.

They don’t worry so much about square corners, neat piles and getting everything done exactly on time and to a T– they’re focused on paying attention to what’s most important for the business in the moment and that always taking precedence even if other tasks get left undone. Punctuality is much less important most of the time than productivity. It’s a given that there’s never enough time to get everything done and done well. Part of the trick is to understand that not everything worth doing needs to be done to perfection. Good enough is often good enough and some things, left to their own devices, will even take care of themselves.

4. Praise your team and don’t steal the spotlight

Smart leaders surround themselves with smart(er) people. If you aim high and find curious, trustworthy and reliable people, you can set a high-bar and people will be willing to take big risks to achieve big results. Just look at what Elon Musk has been able to accomplish with Tesla and Space-X.

Leaders that suck make one common mistake – the steal the spotlight from their teams. Your job is to inspire, teach, motivate and to help others succeed. You’re a conductor of the orchestra, not the lead violin. Leaders who forget this and who want to always be a star with the spotlight constantly shining on them, choke their team’s productivity and mood.

This is true even if the amazing idea your team just released was your idea. You weren’t the only person to execute the idea and you shouldn’t be the only person receiving credit. In fact, sharing credit builds trust. Roderick Kramer, a social psychologist at Stanford writes:

Leaders can beneficially exploit this phenomenon to build trust by being out in front of the organization’s decisions, says Kramer, so that when good things happen, people recognize that the leader was in charge of the process, even though he or she might share the credit. “And there’s a little bit of evidence that suggests that when leaders are generous at sharing credit, they actually are more trusted,” he says. “It shows that they are fully confident.” Likewise, demonstrating confidence by admitting full responsibility when something goes wrong — even if the leader wasn’t fully responsible — can in some cases enhance a leader’s reputation.

5. Provide and receive regular, real-time, constructive feedback

A small but growing number of established U.S. companies, including General Electric, Gap, Adobe and Accenture, have started to replace (or in some cases, supplement) traditional end-of-the-year performance reviews with more frequent conversations and real-time feedback. Successful startups and small businesses have been doing this for many years.

When employees are passionate, they’re engaged and productive. But unless you have a way to easily measure passion, you should make it a habit of talking with your teams on a regular basis, to offer and to receive real-time, constructive feedback. If you wait until the end of the year to offer feedback, you’ve failed. After all, one of your jobs as a leader is to help each person succeed. You succeed only when they succeed. To help each person succeed, you need to know their goals and values.

Here’s why real-time feedback is important: there’s not an organization or person on Earth that doesn’t make mistakes. I’ve made far more than I can count. Failure is rarely permanent and you should be sure that your team groks this. In fact, you should encourage your teams to reach farther and to not be afraid of making mistakes. But teaching people not to fear failure is not the same thing as teaching them to succeed. After all, when you see people making the same mistake over and over again, that’s a sign that they don’t understand how to do something and an opportunity for you to help them.

If you provide and receive regular, real-time, constructive feedback, you’ll empower your team to take risks and will also be more willing to take such risks yourself.

You are probably already giving some form of regular or semi-regular feedback, but for the longest time, I failed to understand one very important element that makes such feedback useful and valuable: listen more than you talk. As I wrote previously:

Far too many people think review time is a time to talk. It’s not. Review time is a time to listen. The conversation should always be two-way. Invite your employees to talk about their accomplishments and struggles. Invite them to talk about their work and personal goals for the coming year. Ask them if they’re happy with the work they’re doing and the people around them (you’d be surprised how many people are afraid to ask this question). Ask them how you can do better.

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