We’ve all had that boss or manager that was simply that — one who managed or bossed. It’s rarely a pleasant experience, and most of us simply aim to “survive” or “get through” those situations. Often, though, it isn’t really the fault of these individuals that they don’t function well in a leadership role. As organizations, we often promote someone to their level of incompetence, asking more of them than they are prepared to give. When you’re fortunate enough to work with a real leader though, it can be a life-changing experience. No leader is perfect — in fact, some of the best leaders I ever worked with had some quirks or faults that I made sure to avoid in my future leadership roles. However, I still reflect on my time under them with a sense of fondness. You see, not everyone is a born leader, but not being born with leadership instincts doesn’t mean that one cannot lead. In fact, growing into a leader is one of the greatest accomplishments one can have — personally or professionally.
Please note- This is by no means an exhaustive or definitive list of leadership characteristics. This is simply a list of ten small things you can do every week to help you grow your leadership skills. If you can make these into habits, you’ll be amazed at the response you get from your teams.
- Study for meetings. Coming prepared to every meeting does a couple things- 1: It helps make your meetings more productive and efficient, and perhaps even more importantly, 2: It shows the people that you’re meeting with that you value their time as well. Even if you come to an informal 1-on-1 with some questions or feedback, it sends the message that you aren’t just going through the motions. Every night I look at my calendar for the next day’s meetings and make sure that I come in prepared with notes (such as contextual info on subject matter or attendees, info that will likely be needed from me, or questions to ask). This takes at most 20 minutes, and it's extremely valuable.
- Build in face-time with your support teams. If you are lucky enough to have a company with dedicated support teams (such as IT, logistics, data science, etc.), make sure you become close with them. Your success will largely depend on their help, and if they feel like you truly value them, they’re more likely to help out in a pinch.
- Take your teams out to teambuild away from work. Good relationships with and between your team members will make your group work more efficiently. Even if your company won’t provide much budget, board games and a potluck hardly cost anything. And if you’re a manager making decent money, don’t be stingy — your team is responsible for much of your success, so share your rewards with them. One of my mentors used to do a very small, but meaningful thing — our monthly team building budget was small, but he thought that it was important for us to get outside the office and be together. So, once a week we’d set up shop in a little café or bar, and knowing that he made more than the rest of us, he’d foot the bill for coffee or drinks. The amount he spent was pretty small, but the message that it sent to the rest of us was huge. It showed that he valued us beyond what was required of him on paper. True leaders don’t look at these types of investments as sacrifice, they see them as a responsibility.
- Set aside time to learn something every day. It’s not hard to build in 30 minutes every morning and/or evening to read articles or books relevant to your industry. This is especially crucial when you’re moving to a new team, company, or even role. When you hear words in meetings that you aren’t familiar with, if you can’t ask for clarification in the moment, write them down. When you keep a list like this, you can go through it and ask someone you trust (or even the interwebs) to explain it to you later. If you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing; and great leaders demand just as much if not more improvement and growth from themselves as they do from their team members.
- Seek feedback from people you work with — especially direct reports. Often, those in positions of authority are quick to give feedback, but not so quick to request it. Constant improvement is a theme across these habits, and requesting feedback in the pursuit of improvement not only helps you, but it helps those with whom you’re working see that you’re trying to get better (a.k.a. not being a hypocrite). This is one of the biggest opportunities for many in positions of authority to lead by example.
- Praise at least one person from your team. Recognition means a lot to team members, even if it’s for something seemingly small. Manager/bosses often receive the lion’s share of the credit for their teams simply because their face is out there. If this is you, be sure to pass along positive feedback that you’ve received or just recognize someone when they go above and beyond. I’ve found that those who transfer credit to their teams and exercise servant leadership are typically the ones who never lack in accolades — probably because they’re not wasting time & energy on seeking validation.
- Take amazing notes. This one was a big adjustment for me, but it’s been crucial to my development as a leader. Taking good notes in meetings or on calls makes sure that you’re locked in mentally. It also paves the way to make you a more valuable resource to have in important meetings. For example- I always format my notes the same way so that they’re easy to browse. At the beginning of every meeting, I record the meeting subject, attendees, and meeting time & date. I track topics and peoples’ contributions with their initials. When I need to take an action on something, I put a checkbox next to it. When I need to follow up on something, I put an asterisk next to it. I put down personal perspectives with a short dash and indent in front of it. Then, at the end of each day, I review my notes, pull out my action items and followups, then assign time slots to them on my calendar to make sure they get done. This helps me not only make the most of my meetings, it keeps me sharp inside and outside of the conference room.
- Make time to teach. Great leaders often make the most powerful mentors. Teach someone something everyday, even if it’s something small. You’ll be amazed at how creating a culture of mentorship on your team can scale its capacity for great work.
- Display trust via vulnerability. One of the hardest things to do as a leader is to display what we perceive as a weakness or fault. We put pressure on ourselves to be the “rocks” of our teams. However, it’s not only unrealistic to do this, but it’s damaging to team morale & growth. When a leader admits that they need help they are telling their team members, “It’s okay to ask for help. No one knows everything,” thus making it easier for a team member to ask a question & get clarity where they may have otherwise put up a front and subsequently not grown. In a recent article published by Quartz, a multi-year study regarding effective teams conducted at Google concluded that “psychological safety” — a model of teamwork in which members have a shared belief that it is safe to take risks and share a range of ideas without the fear of being humiliated — is key to a team’s success. This starts with the leadership.
- Challenge your perspective. In this day and age, it’s pretty easy to insulate ourselves from things we disagree with — Don’t like someone’s social post? Unfollow them. Don’t like the point of view on this news channel? Go to the other guys, or even the other other guys. And so on… Humility is a core trait of great leaders, and it manifests in many ways. Being humble doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself, it means thinking of yourself less. This results in you having more time to consider others’ ideas and perspectives. Force yourself to honestly set aside your biases and look at something from an opposing perspective at least once a week (this can be something as small as researching the opposing perspective on an initiative that you’re passionate about, or something as big as politics/religion). When you open yourself up to a shift in perception, you’ll be amazed at how your capacity to love and lead others grows.