10 Tips for Better Leadership

By Margaret Enloe, JD, PCC. The other day, I spoke with a client who had just returned from an interview at a law firm. My client was struck by how frequently the law firm partner had interrupted the associates, even when the associates were providing useful information about the firm to my client.  Why on earth would the partner interrupt so often, seemingly oblivious to what was being said? 

Unfortunately, there is no good answer.  

Leaders of any organization often have blind spots and a sense of self-importance.  And, while leaders should have a greater degree of emotional intelligence and self-awareness, the opposite is frequently true. In fact, even though most people believe they are self-aware, a study done by Tasha Eurich, the author of a book called “Insight,” only 10-15% of the people she studied actually are self-aware. Moreover, the higher people rise in the ranks, the less self-aware they are.  

Leaders often fail to listen well and don’t ask questions of their direct reports or peers about how they’re doing.  A CEO doesn’t have peers so they are further shielded from the truth.  Yet, getting input from colleagues – – specifically, soliciting ideas for improvement on a continuous basis – – is much more likely to have a positive impact on a leader’s performance and ongoing effectiveness.  As Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan put it, “leadership is a contact sport.” 

While there is no single key to good leadership, there are many principles, among them to speak honestly, listen genuinely, work diligently (think “plow horse” not “show horse”) and lead humbly. Huge egos, as you might imagine, get in the way of excellence and can lead to mediocrity or worse.  Wall Street and Silicon Valley are littered with the wreckage of huge egos.

The good news is that most people can learn to be a better leader if not a great one. George Washington is a good example; as explained in Tasha Eurich’s Insight, Washington started his military life as a young, brash and self-deluded lieutenant colonel but learned to be an amazing leader.  

It may take work and ongoing effort but here are 10 tips to make it easier to be a good leader:

1.  Ask more questions. Peter Drucker, the famous business consultant, educator and author has said, “[t]he leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell.  The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.”  

Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln, a true leader by all accounts, was known to be a good listener. 

2. Create a climate where people are heard.  Particularly, if you’re in a disagreement, adopt the “two minute rule” in which neither party interrupts the other for that period of time.  Ray Dalio described this in his book, Principles.

3. Seek feedback continuously, especially of those who know how you behave, who like you and who are strong enough to tell you the truth (i.e., the “loving critic”).  Only one or two people may fall into this category but these two are better than five to ten who only want to please you.  In fact, when it comes to telling the truth about how people see you, people often prefer to withhold the truth, and sometimes will out and out lie!

4. Especially if you are “the boss,” refrain from giving your point of view before hearing what others have to say.  If you speak first, subordinates will figure out a way to agree with you and you’ll miss out valuable information and perspectives;

5. Stick to the facts and eliminate judgments and interpretations. When dealing with people’s poor performance or limiting attitudes, for example, give them clear examples of their specific behaviors – – what they said, how they said it or what they have done; 

6. Keep a realistic view of your own qualities and acknowledge weaknesses; it’s smart to keep learning from others and keep successes in perspective;

7. Conduct “autopsies” without blame.  This is much more likely to yield the truth; 

8.  Confront the brutal facts.  If you hear from three sources that you are a micro-manager or, even worse, an impulsive naysayer or perhaps something else that you find unbelievable, it is probably true.  Get curious, learn more from your loving critic and do something about it.  As Winston Churchill said, “[t]here is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away.” 

9. Create a “stop doing” list with the help of a trusted colleague or family member and see what’s on it. “Stop doing” lists may be more important than “to do” lists. Edward Stack, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, destroyed over $5 million in military-style, semi-automatic rifles after discussing with his wife the moral consequences of selling military-style weapons. http://bit.ly/DicksStopsSelliing;

10. Have clear goals and don’t confuse goals with desires.  If you’re ambitious, that’s good, as long as it’s ambition on behalf of the common good.  Consider the recent demise of WeWork’s Adam Nuemann or Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos.  If things go poorly, a great leader looks in the mirror and takes full responsibility.

If you have trouble remembering these tips and want to latch onto one, a guiding theme is to maintain an open and curious mindset. It will always work in your favor.

For more straight-forward best-practices for leadership, consult with Margaret.