How to be a successful leader

Written by
Changeboard Team

01 May 2015

01 May 2015 • by Changeboard Team

What makes a good leader?

Let's begin by exploring what you think it means to be a good leader. If you were asked to list as many good leaders as you could, I would be looking for the answers to two questions:

1. Who did you select for your list?
2. How big was your list?

Leaders you've been impressed by

In no more than five minutes, write down as many leaders as you are able who have impressed you because of their leadership qualities or capability.

When I have asked this of others several things have shown themselves. The same names appear on the list time and time again. These are typically names such as:  Richard Branson, Nelson Mandela, Adolph Hitler, Jack Welch, Winston Churchill, Sir Clive Woodward, Martin Johnson, Alex Ferguson, Margaret Thatcher, etc.

Role models

With a couple of notable exceptions, they tend to be iconic figures on the political or sporting stage, and typically not business leaders. Also, rarely does the list include people known personally to each participant, or who have been associated with their career.

This can be quite concerning for anyone coming into leadership in business for the first time, as it suggests that you will have very few personal role models to refer to. To make the point another way; had the question been list examples of poor management of ineffective managers how do you think that your list might be different?

Business typically seems to have been populated with managers as opposed to leaders, and not very good ones at that. Yet today’s business demands good leaders. 

For many, one of the big barriers to leadership is this fear of ‘are we good enough?’ or ‘will I just be setting myself up to fail?’ Often, this is because we do not really understand what a highly effect leader looks like, and as such what one does.

How do you become a good leader?

There's a need to dispel this mystery that’s associated with leadership and the achievement of extraordinary results.

As typically, our leadership examples come from iconic figures, there is a tendency to believe that we have to be some kind of superhero to be a good leader. This is really not the case, and with a few simple ‘how to’s’, you will be able to become a highly effective leader of both people and performance.

Leadership fears

1. Do they like me?

One of the great fears for new leaders is that they may become unpopular and cause upset among people, or even lose their friends as they have to get them to do ‘stuff’, whatever ‘stuff’ might be.

As soon as we start trying to please, or be liked by multiple people, we start tying ourselves in knot, and setting ourselves up to fail. We also start to lose sight of our identity and what made us unique in the first place. Often getting people to do what we need them to do can feel at odds with who we are wish to be. 

Your values

2. What are your values?

We need to get closer to understanding our uniqueness to fix this one properly. The starting point is our values.  These are the things that we literally value the most.  Unless you have done specific work on highlighting or even surfacing your values, you may find it tricky to identify and prioritise these.

One of the scary aspects about leadership is that as an effective leader, you have to be the one to not only unite (in many cases) and embrace diversity, and then not only sustain that united position, but also influence it. It’s certainly going to be hard to be liked by all, and at the same time.

When you know your values, and recognise their importance to you, you will not compromise the main ones for anyone or anything. Your values shape your beliefs. Your beliefs ultimately dictate the way that you see the world, and the judgements that you make upon it.  Therefore, based personal values and beliefs what may be right and normal to one person, may be wrong and highly offensive to others.

It is critical therefore that you understand your values and beliefs more intimately, as these provide the blueprint or specification for your lens into the world, i.e. they dictate how you see things, or hear things, or feel things.

It also helps to highlight that everybody else’s lens is different, based upon their own personal set of values and beliefs.

Performing under pressure

Be aware that we use different values under stress, which is why we behave differently when under pressure. It is really important that we familiarise ourselves with how to perform under pressure and high stress situations.

Once we have connected with our identity, we tend to become less worried about whether people like us or not, or even by how much. So it seems that our need for people to like us is heightened, when we are not sure ourselves whether we like us.  

Once this has been surfaced, it becomes clear that this dependence for others to like us is not sustainable. We therefore have to lose our attachment and infatuation with others liking us. 

How to model authentic leadership

Instead, we should learn to live more authentically, and to our values. This implies a greater consistency of behaviour. People may not immediately like us for this, but they will soon start to respect us for sticking to our values and being consistent. Interestingly enough though, there are very few people whom we respect, but do not like.                                                                                                                                                                              Therefore, by identifying who we are and then laying out our stall in line with our values, we will likely earn respect, and people will naturally like us as a by-product. Even if they don’t they will know where they stand. 

This allows us to be free to be us, and not worry who does and who doesn’t like us today, because it will be impossible to satisfy everybody that way. This train of thought and approach empowers us to get on with the more important aspects of being a highly effective leader.