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4 Things to Do to Be a Better Leader

A number of readers have written to ask how they can make real progress in those areas of leadership where they don’t feel strong enough, particularly if they don’t have personal access to a consultant, coach, or even a dedicated buddy who can help them in concrete ways.

Of course their specific questions and needs were all different. So for general consumption, here’s a way to focus your thinking about how you can set priorities for your own self-development as a leader.

Taking the First Steps

You have to know what you need to get done, and you have to understand the people who are working with you. Sounds simple, but it takes significant thought and focus in multiple areas. I’ve outlined four of those baseline areas here and given you links to additional content on the topic — and I’m happy to discuss them further if you’d like to get in touch!

  1. Know your context. To be sure that you’re communicating clearly about your team and organization’s purpose, you first need clarity in your own mind. That doesn’t mean you should be fixed or rigid in your views. You can — and should — shift, revise, edit, and adjust based on the input of colleagues and employees, but you need to be clear, truthful, and authentic whenever you’re describing what you think or what you want to have happen. Context is incredibly important to accurate decision-making and problem-solving, so always be sure that you’re explaining the nature and purpose of the business, not just focusing on the details of the tasks. And if you don’t know enough about the business or where your team fits into the big picture, go find out from a mentor or an organizational historian. The better you understand, the more effective you will be. (For more on clarity and context, see Onboarding: Clarity Establishes Safety, Why Being Clear Is Even More Important Than Being Nice, or You Can Help Your Staff Manage You Better.)
  2. Review all work assignments to ensure that there’s good fit between the people and their tasks or projects. Base employees’ assignments not only on their functional skills and experience, but also on their personal strengths and commitment. Figure out — with them — what they need to have in order to be fully productive so you can give them the right tools and resources to do the work. And delegate the jobs fully and accurately to give your employees the best chance for success. (For more on delegation and assignment, see Why You Have to Deal with the Problem of Role Clarity, Why You Need to Tell Your Employees the Real Story, or There’s a Right Way to Empower Employees Effectively.)
  3. Hear everyone out. Listen as if your career depends on it, because it does. Make it clear how much you want to understand employees’ views, concerns, and suggestions, not for a quick take or off-the-cuff response, but deeply. Let them know you want to learn what they care about, what their frame of reference is, and how they’re trying to help the business, its customers, and each other. But don’t listen blindly. Get to know the people whose perspectives you’re hearing. Ask probing follow-up questions, and check for internal consistency in their answers. And don’t leap in to answer their questions or help resolve things for them: that puts you at risk of “lancing the boil” when the real problem may be something that’s more pervasive or buried under the surface. (For more on listening, see The Listening Post, parts I, II, III.)
  4. Address all problems; don’t avoid them. The vast majority of interpersonal challenges don’t ever resolve themselves. That’s because they’re actually layered on or enmeshed in structural or power problems. So don’t be satisfied with even a thorough analysis of symptoms. Identify whether there are practices or long-held beliefs that hold people and their views or behaviors locked in place. Sort out the communication, hierarchy, or procedural aspects of the problem. If you need help doing the sorting out or persuading others that there’s more going on than meets the eye, then by all means, get help! In fact, get help even if you think you can resolve the problem on your own — another viewpoint is always useful for turning up details or angles you haven’t noticed. And don’t pretend things are fine if they aren’t, or look away in hope that things will work out without your taking action. (For more on problem resolution, see If You Want to Solve a Problem, Think of It as an Iceberg or Partnering for Problem-Solving.)

In next week’s post, we’ll look at four more crucial leadership approaches that emphasize self-awareness and self-management as tools for relating to your team and your employees.

Onward and upward,


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