It has often been said, and correctly so, that leaders are made, not born. But, to embark on a journey of becoming a leader, you first have to know what a great leader looks like. At the end of the day, people that are perceived as great leaders inspire others to accomplish more than they could do alone. Here is how to do just that.
Craft and Communicate A Shared Vision That Is Positive, Concrete, and Forward-Looking
If the successful leadership recipe has one central ingredient, it is crafting and communicating a positive, forward-looking shared vision. To inspire, a vision must tell people what the goal is, why it matters, and how they will achieve it.
Importantly, a great vision must be easy to communicate. Vision is the voice whispering in people’s ears that inspires individual initiative and empowers them to venture into uncertainty. Moreover, to be successful, your vision must be capable of being transferred virally from person to person, since you cannot be there most of the time. That can happen only if your vision is concise and concrete.
On a visceral level, human beings derive personal fulfillment by making life better for themselves and for others. In periods of adversity, a great vision should deliver a response to a personally relevant external threat. In periods of opportunity, a great vision should provide a realizable individual benefit and offer people a way to change the world.
Imagine it is April 4, 1975 and you are sitting in an Albuquerque, New Mexico coffee shop with Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Bill has just dropped out of Harvard, relocated across the country, and started a new company called Micro-Soft with fellow dropout Paul (they later removed the hyphen). The company’s first product is software that interprets and executes simple programs written in the then ten year old BASIC language. Bill and Paul could have crafted a competitive vision such as ‘crush Digital Equipment Corporation, Data General, and Hewlett Packard by dominating the BASIC programming language market.’ Yet, they must have sensed that purely competitive visions are negative by definition. Though sustainable in the short term, negative emotions cannot – or at the very least should not – be sustained. And, what happens if you win? What’s next?
Instead, according to legend, the Microsoft founders articulated the vision ‘a computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software.’ It certainly worked for them, but it could have been better. This vision does have a concrete outcome and is forward looking, but it neither tells employees what is in it for them personally nor does it show how their collective effort will make the world a better place.
Eventually, they got it right. Microsoft’s current vision is ‘to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.’ Whether or not you like Microsoft, you have to respect the leadership and vision of Bill Gates.
Recruit, hire, and continually train the very best people you can to become leaders themselves
For any great leader, time spent recruiting exceptional people offers the single greatest return on investment available. Even in organizations of modest size, leaders fly in a hyper-speed orbit of guide-measure-iterate, guide-measure-iterate, with limited time for execution. Hence, the people responsible for building products and delivering services are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the organization.
At some point in your professional life, undoubtedly you have had a terrible partner, employee, peer, or supervisor. If so, you remember that experience vividly. Left unchecked, this type of person will destroy your vision and your organization. Equally important, a ‘bad-egg’ consumes your most precious asset – time – without any positive return. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure so you need to recruit well to lead well.
Ideally, you should recruit the best people, period. However, practically, you should set your sights on recruiting the best people you can, given your circumstances. All leaders have constraints on the position they are seeking to fill: constraints on salary, location, talent pool, etc. Once you know your constraints, take as much time as you have available to ensure that you are hiring the very best person possible.
Once you have hired, you bear a weighty personal and professional responsibility to help people achieve their personal hopes and dreams through their work. If you did your job during the hiring process, the individual fully understood and fully embraced your vision. Since your employees spend more hours working for you than just about anything else they do, fulfilling the vision must be inextricably linked to their hopes and dreams. When the connection is made, daily work naturally will imbue people with direction and a sense of purpose.
Great leaders empower individuals to reach their potential with daily opportunities for growth. Though not everyone wants to climb the corporate ladder to the top, everyone does crave professional development of one form or another. Otherwise they will die of boredom in their jobs, or, less dramatically, leave your organization. Ask people what they believe their strengths are and what skills they are seeking to develop. Invest time to determine their strengths and the new skills that would make them stronger. Then, make sure that the objectives you set and the tasks you give offer daily chances to learn.
The ultimate gift of great leaders is training people to become great leaders themselves. This is not only the best form of intangible compensation, but also the most surefire way to guarantee the current and future success of your organization and the fulfillment of your vision.
Mobilize people and harness resources
As a great leader, you now have the critical ingredients for success – an inspiring vision combined with talented, highly motivated people. Left to their own devices, people will chart their own course to fulfill your shared vision. Though admirable, this approach will result in a poor use of limited resources.
Instead, you must prioritize and share a key set of objectives to amplify and accelerate success. To be successful, your goals should be realistically based on existing or planned organizational resources and capabilities. Through that lens, you can accept or reject proposed activities. The greatest leaders go one step further by satisfying multiple priorities with each activity. Additionally, stellar leaders maniacally make sure to involve the right people whose extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are aligned with achieving the strategic objective.
Great leaders keep their prioritized set of objectives front and center by creating and managing momentum. Short term wins do not happen by accident; you must painstakingly plan for them and then tirelessly promote them. When people achieve meaningful short term wins, they proudly redouble their efforts to reach the next milestone.
Earn and maintain trust
People accept only leaders they trust. Early 20th century oil entrepreneur J. Paul Getty embraced this concept long before the term managerial psychology had been coined and at a time when robber-barons were little evolved from feudal tyrants. Trust must come from the heart and trust must be proactively earned and maintained.
Getty built trust by modeling the way. Though born into the family oil business and well educated at elite universities, Getty routinely got his hands dirty joining his men on the rigs. Maniacally focused on cost control, he was known to sleep in his car and later in budget motels. Once, when an executive in his company took home some scrap but still useful wood to build a doghouse, Getty very publicly compelled the executive to pay the company back. If the man had not otherwise been an exemplary employee, Getty would have fired him to make an even better example of him.
Though great leaders possess poise, they know that credibility does not require perfection. Quite to the contrary, it is important to show people that you are human. J. Paul Getty did this by publicly acknowledging the mistakes he made along the way to success. For example, he cited his loss of conviction despite careful due diligence in an oil investment after his partners lost faith during early 1930’s stock market volatility. Take careful note that Getty paired his mistakes with the important learning he gleaned in the process.
In one-on-one interactions, great leaders earn and maintain trust through two essential practices. The first is to give credit and take blame. If you never falter in this practice, your reputation will precede you as you inspire your people and attract new talent. The second is to show people that your belief in their ability exceeds their own belief in their ability. In so doing, you will assuage people’s self doubts and insecurities. In following this simple practice, you will give your people the fuel they need to achieve their full potential.
Strive to become “sought after”
In addition to having trust in their leaders, people must believe that those who wish to lead them have the ability to chart the course. When investing in their own personal and professional development, strong leaders set objectives that make them “sought after” in ways that are directly relevant to the realization of their vision.
Even before J. Paul Getty had great wealth, seasoned oil field workers abandoned the relative comfort of neighboring drilling operations to join his austere operation. His sought-after ability to strike oil far outweighed the sacrifice in working conditions].
As a great leader you are building a brand. Even in the unlikely event that you could gain the widely varied expertise of a polymath, people will only be able to identify you with a very small number of attributes. Figure out the skills in which you excel that align with your vision and that you want to be known for and then invest tirelessly to improve and to share your knowledge.
Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become a great leader:
- Craft and communicate a shared vision that is positive, concrete, and forward-looking
- Recruit, hire, and continually train the very best people you can to become leaders themselves
- Mobilize people and harness resources
- Earn and maintain trust
- Strive to become “sought after”