I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot lately. What makes a great leader, how they admit mistakes when they’ve failed, how they engender trust, why people follow them and are loyal even after they stop working together, and how they continue to work on themselves to improve.
As probably every single one of you has experienced, a bad manager (notice I didn’t say leader) can ruin a perfectly good job. A passive aggressive text can spoil your day. A rant in front of your colleagues makes you want to cry your eyes out and then curl up with a movie and a pint of ice cream (oh, who am I kidding? A bottle of wine and a pint of ice cream). And an email or Slack message sent in the middle of the night can veer you off the path.
These are all things I have seen happen in real-time with friends, colleagues, or peers in the past few weeks. To boot, I have a colleague who will call me Gina when he’s mad at me, and no amount of people telling him it’s Gini works. If anything, it makes him do it even more.
Ah, people. Clearly, some people will never be leaders, but for those of you who aspire to be known as a great leader, this article is for you.
Some “Leaders” Have the Peter Principle Applied
A few weeks ago, a girlfriend sent me a screengrab of a text her boss sent her at 5:30 a.m. It read, “The amount of screwing up you have done lately is asinine. Please call me the moment you wake up.”
The moment you wake up? Is she her mother?
I wasn’t the receiver of that text, and it infuriates me. Can you imagine? I’d be like, “Oh, yeah? Your amount of being a horrible person is asinine. I quit.” And that, my friends, is why I am completely unemployable.
My friend asked me what to do. I told her she should not, under any circumstances, call her boss until the workday started—and certainly not at 6:15 a.m., which is when we were texting. I then began to ruminate on how people like that are employable and why some HR manager hasn’t shown her the door for behaving that way.
She is not the perfect picture of a leader. I wouldn’t even classify her as a manager. She’s just someone who has had the Peter Principle applied, probably because she’s good at doing her job, and will never move up the ladder further than she already has (at least, I hope that’s the case!). Unfortunately, she will never read this article because she doesn’t believe she has anything to work on, and she’ll continue to send horrible text messages at all hours of the day and night—and outstanding employees like my friend will leave.
I had a boss like that in my late 20s. She went through employees as often as she changed her clothes, and everyone in the organization knew it. When they moved me to work under her, they told me if anyone could survive her, it would be me. They literally said that to me! So, instead of firing her because no one could work with her, they took their most stubborn employee to see if she could be broken of her bad behavior.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t work out. To this day, when I see that woman’s name online, I want to throw my computer out the window. Not the perfect picture of a leader, either.
You Can’t Just Become a Great Leader
I’m reading Happiness Falls right now, which is fiction, but there is a section in there about leadership that I thought was apropos:
“Lion tamers, skating coaches, all these people ordering the actual performers around—it seems like anyone could substitute in, but an untrained person copying a lion tamer’s exact physical movements and sounds would get their head bitten off.
“It’s not the external aspect, is my point, not just the person flicking their wrist a certain way that makes the lion not eat them, or that brings the instruments together and inspires the group as a whole to feel and transmit longing, joy, vivacity, etc.
“It’s an ineffable talent, like leadership, that depends on a person’s interpersonal connection and influence, which cannot be faked; the conductor has to know the music cold, the same way the lion tamer can’t feel fear, because the lion knows. The conductor has to intentionally and confidently embody a certain emotion and let the baton embody it, too, zap that through the air, let it course through the musicians and their instruments, and will it to envelop the audience.
“Just as important as the leader’s talent is the relationship built with the performers through hours of practice and repetition. A genius maestro can’t step in five minutes before a performance to conduct an orchestra they’ve never met, just like the world’s best lion tamer can’t step into the limelight with an uncaged lion they’ve never worked with.”
And I will add, just like a leader can’t earn trust and respect overnight—and certainly not by bullying or behaving badly. Just like you can’t step into the ring and command respect from a lion, you can’t send a rude and condescending text message at 5:30 a.m. (or really at any time of the day or night) and expect people to trust and respect you. It’s just not how it’s done.
The Most Effective Leadership Skills
When you think about some of the best leaders you’ve worked with, what qualities do they have? Are they visionary? Do they have high integrity? Do they inspire you to want to be better? Do they have high emotional intelligence? Are they adaptable? Can they communicate clearly and effectively? Do they hit conflict head-on? Are they resilient? Are they humble? Do they consistently work on their own learning and development?
If you said yes to all of these—or even the majority of them—let’s bottle that person up and have them round up all of the people who are in leadership positions who don’t have these qualities. Wouldn’t life be so much easier that way?
Because we can’t really do that and because there is only one person we can change—ourselves—let’s talk about how to achieve those leadership qualities.
How self-aware are you? I’m self-aware to a fault. Don’t be me, but do be self-aware enough to reflect on your strengths, weaknesses, and how your behavior affects the people around you.
When I started my agency, I hired a business coach who was perfect for me—he didn’t put up with my BS, and he put me in my place when appropriate. One afternoon, I was venting about my team complaining about feeling burned out. I exclaimed, “How can that be when they’re only required to work 40 hours a week?”
He so graciously pointed out that while I didn’t expect them to work more than 40 hours a week, my actions showed differently. I got to the office at 7 a.m. and often didn’t leave until 7 or 8 p.m. I told him I did that because it was my business and I was building it, but I certainly didn’t expect them to. He told me to think about the message I was sending by being there 12-14 hours a day. It certainly wasn’t, “Hey, the big boss is here, but by all means! Go home!” Instead, it was, “If I’m here, you should be, too.”
I didn’t expect them to be, but that’s how they perceived it. No wonder they were burned out!
So I started leaving the office at 5:00…and so did everyone else. I went home and worked, but I didn’t send any emails or bug them after hours. And guess what? People were no longer burned out!
Cultivate Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
I have a brother who is one of the most intelligent people alive, IQ-wise. But he has zero EQ or social skills, making him unemployable and impossible to work with. A leader’s EQ is often a stronger predictor of success than their IQ, which makes sense in my focus group of one.
That is because EQ involves self-regulation, empathy, motivation, social skills, and self-awareness. Your IQ does not predicate those things, nor does it mean you will ever be good at it.
You can improve your EQ by practicing active listening, engaging in empathy exercises, and learning conflict-resolution techniques.
Be a Lifelong Learner
Being a lifelong learner is something I talk about a lot here. It’s not only important for becoming a better leader, but in ensuring you don’t become complacent in your job.
The best leaders are perpetual students. Keep up with the latest leadership theories and practices by reading books, attending workshops, and seeking mentors. Platforms like Coursera or LinkedIn Learning offer courses on leadership development, and many one-on-one coaches can help, too.
Being a lifelong learner is not just about acquiring new knowledge; it’s about developing a mindset that embraces change, seeks new challenges, and continually strives for personal and professional growth. This approach is vital for those who are motivated to lead more effectively.
Foster a Growth Mindset
Leaders with a growth mindset see challenges as opportunities to learn and grow rather than obstacles to avoid. A growth mindset allows people to view failure as a part of the learning process, not as a reflection of their abilities or worth. This perspective encourages taking calculated risks and innovation, as setbacks are seen as stepping stones to success.
A growth mindset is not just a nice-to-have attribute; it’s a critical component of effective leadership. It fosters a proactive, resilient, and innovative approach to leadership, ensuring that leaders are well-equipped to face the challenges of the modern business world and lead their teams to success.
Set an Example
I’ve always thought the best leaders are willing to roll up their sleeves and get the work done alongside their teams. What I failed to realize early on in the life of my business was that it meant, alongside, not doing it for them. It’s hard to give up control and delegate effectively, especially when the business is your own or you’re in a new leadership role. But that’s one of the most important ways to build trust and empower others, while setting an example.
Encouraging feedback is probably one of the hardest things you’ll do in your quest to become a better leader. Sometimes, we hear things we don’t want to hear, and our egos get bruised. But it’s one of the easiest ways to both understand what’s happening at all levels of the organization and engender trust as you show that you’re willing to make change based on what you learn. It’s not easy, but it works.
As you engage with these tips and tools, remember that leadership is a journey, not a destination. It’s something you will always work on and evolve. It requires patience, dedication, and an unwavering commitment to growth—both personal and for the team you’re privileged to lead.
Each step forward in honing your leadership abilities is a step toward creating a more harmonious, productive, and motivated environment that stands the test of time and challenge.