You don’t need to browse through history books or self-help books to learn what makes a great leader – although it certainly wouldn’t hurt.When we looked at data we collected for our Leadership Potential Assessment, we focused our analysis on people whose performance has been ranked as “Excellent” in their last performance review. Clearly, if you want to be the best leader, you have to learn from the best leaders.
Here are some of the most important lessons that top leaders have to offer:
- Innovate! Sometimes, the tried-and-true methods just won’t work. Whether you’re dealing with a morale problem, a branding problem, customer service issues, or any other difficulty that is affecting your company, don’t adopt the same solutions you’ve used in the past. Organize a brainstorming team that is made up of employees from all levels in the company. Top-ranking executives are not the only ones who can come up with novel ideas and solutions.
- Set a good example. Reprimanding an employee for a behavior that you’ve been guilty of yourself (e.g. coming in late, taking personal calls during work hours) is hypocritical if not demoralizing. Want employees to be self-governing and conduct themselves in a professional manner? Then model the behavior you wish to see in them. The “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” attitude rarely goes over well with children - so why practice it with adults?
- Create a mission statement – and share it with all employees. How would you feel if you boarded a ship and the captain had no idea where to go, let alone how to reach it? Probably the same way your employees feel when they have no idea what the company hopes to achieve in the short and long-term. Set clear objectives for your employees to work towards. If you want to improve sales, create a mission statement to increase sales by 10% in the next six months. Whatever goals you set, make them clear, challenging, and achievable – and get your entire team on board.
- Set your employees up for success. Harness each person’s strengths, and if their skills are lacking in some areas, give them the resources they need to improve, like the opportunity to take courses, undergo additional training, or take part in an employee assistance program. When hiring a new employee, conduct a gap analysis to determine where the candidate stands in terms of his/her skills, attitude, and personality, and where he/she needs to be in order to perform to the best of his/her ability. Remember, a team is only as good as its weakest member.
- Don’t criticize – advise. It’s easy to point out someone’s mistakes, but it takes a great leader to help someone turn those weaknesses into strengths. Make the most out of performance reviews in order to get the best out of your team. If an employee has room for improvement, offer some guidelines and resources to help him/her improve, and then set some performance goals for him/her to achieve within the next year. And when conducting performance reviews, don’t neglect to point out the positives, and make sure to focus on the person’s behavior, not his/her personality.
- Keep on the straight and narrow path. Some leaders may be able to get away with unscrupulous behavior like tax evasion, harming the environment, or pushing products that simply don’t live up to their claims, but this is becoming much more difficult in a world where social media reigns. You can be an honest leader and still make a profit. Treat your employees and customers with respect, and they will repay you tenfold. Treat them poorly, and you’ll be trending on Twitter in no time – and for all the wrong reasons.
- Show employees that you appreciate their hard work. Slacking off, dishonest conduct, and other sabotaging behaviors are the scourge of the unmotivated. If an employee works his/her butt off and gets no recognition for it, he or she will begin to question whether the effort is even worth the trouble. Most employees recognize that hard work has value in and of itself, but they want to be able to see tangible results from their efforts. Certain rewards may cost money and therefore, can be given out on a semi-regular basis, but sometimes even a verbal (or literal) pat on the back, like a “Good job!” can do wonders for a person’s morale.
- Recognize that you are not infallible. What makes great leaders great is not only their willingness to admit mistakes and accept failure, but also their dedication to improvement. Just because you were promoted to a leadership position, that doesn’t mean you’ve reached the height of your potential. The learning never stops. Keep up to date on trends in leadership, motivation, and customer service. Upgrade your skills as technology advances. Ask employees for insight on areas where they think the company can improve, innovate or become more efficient. Your desire to do and be more will serve as an inspiration for those you lead.
- Maintain a positive attitude. Walk into a room with angry, riled up people and chances are that some of that frustration will rub off on you. The same applies to a company culture. Pessimistic leaders who always expect things to go wrong or who are just waiting for someone to fail drag morale down significantly. That doesn’t mean that a positive attitude negates the need to plan ahead or take calculated risks. Having an optimistic attitude means preparing for the worst but hoping for the best. Remember, when things go wrong your employees will look to you to keep their hopes up.
- Let go of the reigns – don’t micromanage. Nothing is more dispiriting and frustrating than working with a manager who feels the need to control every aspect of an employee’s day, like insisting on frequent updates or nitpicking minor details. When assigning a project, give your team general specifications and expectations, and then let them tackle it their own way. Delegate some of your responsibilities from time to time. Just because you have your way of doing things, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way. Besides, you will never know what your employees are capable of if you don’t give them a chance to shine.