Are you a follower or a leader? Chances are you’re both. Regardless of your position in life you should strive to become a great leader.
What is the Point of a Leader?
Leaders Are Practical Managers
A leader is a practical necessity for most complex projects. Complex projects need a variety of specialized tasks to be completed in a specific order. A practical way to make sure all of the tasks are completed and in the right order is to put one person in charge of the whole project.
Individuals work on very specialized tasks. A project only advances through work on these specialized tasks. Complex projects advance through the efforts of focused individuals.
But the focus of the individuals can blind them to the big picture. Focusing on specialized tasks prevents individuals from observing the overall progress of the project. You cannot be both laser focused and broadly observant. One team or person must oversee the progress of all laser focused individuals. This is the practical reason you need a leader.
A complex project requires a level of management. If some individuals will work on details, at least one team member must ensure the synergy and direction of the team as a whole.
Leaders Maintain Vision and Morale
Leaders serve another equally important function. Leaders set a moral tone for the team and reaffirm the team’s vision. Completing difficult projects requires motivation beyond the initial excitement. Starting a new ambitious project is very exciting and the excitement will provide motivation for a short sprint. But difficult projects are a marathon. A team needs to be reminded of their purpose to stay motivated.
A leader also unites separate departments under a single vision. A leader must monitor specialized teammates and check their progress against the team’s vision. This includes verifying the team isn’t on a irrelevant tangent.
Because a leader is at the highest level of oversight, they serve as a moral judge - addressing problems and rewarding achievement. Punishment and reward are equally important. Both actions reinforce the standards of the team as a whole.
So how do you become a leader? The same way you become anything: practice.
Leadership is a Skill
Leaders Must Practice
Everyone dreams of being a leader. But you can’t become a leader by studying alone. You can read all of the books in the world on leadership and still fail miserably.
Leaders are not born either. Leadership is like any other skill, you have to practice it. The more you try, fail, and learn, the more you will improve.
Today you have more opportunities to practice leadership than ever. You’re constantly connected to everyone you know, and only a click away from new connections.
Your first opportunity to practice leadership is in school. As a student, you have few responsibilities. Don’t think of athletics and clubs as reflections of your character. Start thinking of them as opportunities to practice leadership. Don’t worry about your interests in the organization’s purpose. Join solely to practice being a leader. If you’re not in school, you still have plenty of opportunities to practice leadership in real life.
Most jobs give you an opportunity to practice leadership, even if you don’t have the actual authority to do so. If you embrace the characteristics of great leaders, your colleagues may even begin to see you as one. If they don’t the experience is still worthwhile.
If you don’t have the time or patience to find a team in real life, the internet has unlimited opportunities to practice leadership. Start by choosing 1-5 things you’re personally interested in. Search for groups related to the things your interested in. There are many online community platforms. The major ones are Meetup, Reddit, and Facebook Groups.
If you don’t find a group related to your interest, CREATE IT. Seek out followers and start engaging with them about your shared interest. If you’re a good leader, you’ll have a team in no time.
Leaders Continuously Reflect and Grow
Great leaders continuously grow. To grow, you must prioritize time for growth. Start by budgeting time for reflection and planning. Mark off space in your calendar to periodically reassess your growth and strategy. If you’re trying to improve a specific skill, you need to keep a log of your progress. This will keep you focused on the specific skill.
Great leaders relentlessly consume learning materials. You need to fuel your growth with knowledge. There is a lot of available leadership media. You can find podcasts, books, magazines, movies, coaches, and seminars. Start by consuming the materials that address your biggest weaknesses.
To practice leadership begin by embracing the characteristics of great leaders.
Characteristics of Great Leaders
A vision is the single most important characteristic of a successful team. A vision inspires commitment. A leader isn’t a leader without followers. Leaders use vision to unite a team in solidarity.
A vision reaffirms purpose. Complex projects require teams to change and adapt. But change makes it hard to remember and focus on what's really important. A vision forces a team to remember their purpose at every turn. A vision makes the question of every debate “what gets us to our vision faster?”
A vision also creates pride in team members. It’s sexy to save the world. Great leaders choose visions that make members proud to be on the team. A team’s vision should be so noble that team members proudly tell strangers about it.
There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. Great leaders accept complete ownership over the team’s work. You must own everything that results from your team. For great leaders, all team failures are leadership failures. Either you didn’t create a strong team, or you didn’t manage them well. There are no other excuses.
Complete ownership will inspire and motivate team members. Team members will admire and imitate a leader who practices complete ownership. It’s inspiring to follow a leader who admits errors, works to correct them, and accepts responsibility for the actions of others.
Complete ownership focuses a leader’s attention. Complete ownership is ultimate responsibility. Accepting ultimate responsibility will narrow a leader’s choices and activities. Leaders who embrace complete ownership pay more attention to the recruiting, evaluation, and onboarding of team members. They’re also more likely to track a project’s progress as a whole. Most of the fundamentals of leadership stem from complete ownership.
Empathy is the most important and underrated leadership attribute. Empathy makes team members feel safe and appreciated. A leader should make an effort to understand the positions and minds of team members often. The best way to practice empathy is to be a good listener.
Empathy is an essential part of fostering a culture of safety. Cultural safety is a positive shared experience of effective teams. Fostering a culture of safety is an active duty of every leader. Fostering safety is discussed more below.
Leaders work more than individual team members. There is a common misconception that leaders relax on a throne and occasionally making executive decisions. A leader who works less than his team members will fail. Leadership is a gift of power. It’s an acceptance of responsibility and risk. A leader has the most to gain and lose from a teams’ performance, and as a leader you must act accordingly.
Leaders work on the toughest challenges. A leader is the last defense against catastrophe. When part of a team is failing, a leader picks up the slack, and makes tough decisions.
A leader must suffer more than any team member. In any team, team members will have a range of experiences. A leader must endure the worst conditions of the team, at least periodically. Leaders cannot ask team members to endure conditions they would not.
How To Be a Great Leader
As a leader, you have three core responsibilities. You must simultaneously foster safety, empower team members, and regulate behavior. You have these responsibilities regardless of the type of team you lead.
A leader makes team members feel safe and appreciated. As Simon Sinek repeatedly says “. . . teammates who don’t feel safe perform worse, disengage, and don’t stick around.” In a culture of safety team members feel appreciated, respected, valued, and empowered.
You can cultivate safety among team members with integrity, friendship, and empathy. Treat all team members with equal respect, regardless of hierarchies. Reaffirm how much the team benefits from the contributions of individual members.
Team members who don’t feel safe will flee at the first opportunity. A safe teammate will feel fulfilled and pleasant. Safe team members will loyally invest in the team’s vision.
Fostering a culture of safety doesn’t mean you should only reward team members. Addressing poor performance is just as important as rewarding positive performance. This is the process of regulating standards and objectives.
Regulate Standards and Objectives
You need to regulate the behavior of team members. But regulating does not mean micromanage or be overbearing. Regulation is simple. To regulate, begin by setting standards and objectives.
Standards are clear instructions for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Standards should be easy to meet, clear, fair, and non-discriminatory.
When it comes to standards, a leader should be the example for exemplary behavior. You cannot ask team members to “do as you say, not as you do.”
Next a leader should set objectives for team members. Objectives are goals for team members to meet. Great leaders establish clear, challenging, and reachable objectives for team members.
A team’s success greatly depends on the clarity and precision of its objectives. Objectives allow team members to adapt to small obstacles, the way vision allows a team to adapt to large ones.
Finally, a leader must enforce the standards and objectives. Reward team members for meeting standards and objectives. Punish team members who don’t. Rewarding team members makes them feel safe, appreciated, and motivated to persevere.
Punishing failure is just as important as rewarding success. Addressing failure improves both individual and team performance. But the more important reason to address failures is to maintain a culture of safety. If other team members witness a team member performing poorly without repercussions, they will lose respect for the team as a whole, and disengage from their work. They will think “why should I work so hard when Jack never does?”
As a leader, addressing failure is a tough challenge. But it’s just as necessary as rewarding achievement.
Empower Team Members
Great leaders empower their team. The biggest mistake leaders make is micromanaging team members. If a team member can’t be trusted to perform their duties independently, the leader made a mistake putting them on the team. As much as possible, team members must be independently responsible for their work.
It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.
Micromanaging interferes with a team member’s responsibility for their work. Micromanaging prevents team members from embracing complete ownership. Team members who are micromanaged disengage from their work, become apathetic about objectives, and feel unfulfilled.
Great leaders set standards and objectives, then get out of the way. When a new member joins your team, it should be your goal to get them running independently as soon as possible. Empower the team member to take responsibility and become a leader themselves.
Becoming a great leader is a path not a step. If you decide to be a leader you need to keep growing. Here are some resources to get you started.
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Extreme Ownership gives the lessons learned by two decorated, combat-proven former Navy SEAL Officers. The book documents the authors’ lessons learned about leadership during the Iraq War. The book advocates for empathy, empowerment, and ownership.
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. Sinek has a few books written on leadership. Leaders Eat Last focuses on the importance of fostering a culture of safety. The book ties corporate culture stories to modern leadership science.
Tribes by Seth Godin. Godin has written a dozen books on marketing and startups. Tribes is Godin’s masterpiece on digital communities and leadership. The book describes how to build a small loyal community and profit from it.
Echelon Front. From the authors of Extreme Ownership, Echelon Front provides personalized training to teams of different sizes and professions.
Premier Executive Leadership. From the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, Premier Executive Leadership is an leadership development program designed to prepare public-facing leaders to maintain composure under stress.
Chris Robinson. Chris Robinson is a leadership expert and keynote speaker. He works with companies to sharpen their leadership skills. His informative, entertaining, and motivating style creates incredible leadership programs.
Nathan is WealthFit’s Director of Marketing. He's previously worked as an attorney in entrepreneurial law and venture capital.