13 Ways to Become a Better Leader
January 4, 2013
I buried my mother at the end of 2012. I knew that the day would come, yet it was way too soon. At 82, she was battling leukemia — and the worst kind.
GG, as we called her, had two goals, and was uncharacteristically direct with her doctor the day she was diagnosed: “I have a grandchild coming [my second daughter] and a wedding to attend [her grandson’s], and you’re going to help me get there,” she said, leaning her head close to the doctor’s and pointing at him. My mom abhorred pointing.
I thought to myself, “That’s determination.”
Later, I would find out how determined my mom could be.
I always thought I was a courageous person. Someday, I hope to have half the courage that she had. The Yiddish word for this is “chutzpah,” which is defined as gall, brazen nerve or incredible guts. That fits mom well.
How might the workplace be with a little more chutzpah and more courageous conversations? I believe that there’s more courage inside each of us than we might think — and that it would be powerful to tap into some of that for our benefit and the benefit of others.
As we begin 2013, here are my top 13 ways to become a better leader. If you were to commit to some additional chutzpah this year, then where might you focus your energies?
- Have the tough conversations that you’ve been meaning to have.
Many of us have important thoughts that remain unsaid — conversations that would be valuable to have. Addressing issues upfront is the only way to keep everyday speed bumps from mushrooming into larger problems.
Tell people what they need to hear — not what they want to hear. It’s often through tough conversations that we build relationships and cement bonds.
- Stop talking and listen more.
We know what we personally think. The real opportunity is in knowing what others think. People act to support their best interests, so we need to understand where they’re coming from. The more you know about how someone else thinks, the easier it will be to persuade and move them to action. The answer: Stop talking. Literally.
The most effective leaders spend the majority of their time observing, asking questions, absorbing and listening. Research on difficult negotiations reveals that the party who wins is usually the one who speaks the least. Why? They’re gathering information that is incredibly helpful to them in planning their next move.
- Pick up the phone or walk down the hall to actually talk with someone.
Don’t let email, instant messaging and other electronic forms of communication be a barrier to human interaction. Challenge yourself to pick up the phone two more times each day, especially if you have staff who work remotely. If you can’t find the time to walk the halls, then schedule an appointment for yourself to do it.
- Ask for what you need to succeed.
To get what you want — in life or in work — you have to be able to articulate your needs and advocate for yourself in a positive way.
When a deadline is unrealistic, do you ask for time to do quality work? When you’re missing background information on a project, do you politely insist on a briefing before you begin work? It might be easier to remain silent, but being assertive shows that you respect yourself and others.
- Communicate bad news in the same way, and with the same zest, as good news.
It’s easy to communicate when times are good, or when you have good news to share. When the news is bad, the tendency is often to wait to communicate, or to not communicate at all, thinking, “If you don’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist.”
While you’re waiting to communicate, the information vacuum is filling. It’s human nature to make interpretations — whether right or wrong — in the absence of information. Tell employees what you know, when you know it. That’s all they expect. Do it in a direct and truthful way. If you don’t know the answer, then say so.
- Share performance feedback with others regularly.
First, recognize and reinforce the behaviors that you want to see. If you want someone to continue to do something, then point it out. Talk specifically about the behavior that you appreciate and the positive result of that behavior. Do you prefer that someone handle something differently? Then give constructive feedback. The biggest barrier to giving others feedback is ourselves.
Here are the steps to consider: Tell someone that you want to give him or her feedback. Share your motivation and intent so he or she doesn’t read into your actions. Talk about the behavior that you saw and the negative consequences. Then provide an alternative behavior.
- Turn off your smartphone when you’re on vacation.
It says something about how you lead and manage if you can’t step away from work for a week to re-charge. Are you going on vacation? Prepare your team and disconnect.
Don’t check your computer and disable incoming emails from your phone. Give yourself permission to step away from work and know that if there’s a real emergency, then your team will know how to reach you. You’ll find it liberating.
- Be purposeful in how you communicate.
Every action that you take says something, and you have a choice as to what you want every action to say. You can be purposeful and thoughtful, or you can wing it and see what happens.
- Ask for feedback.
Everyone needs feedback. Learn to say the following: “I’m continually working on how to lead better and would appreciate your feedback. Can you give me one skill that I do well and one area where I can be even better?”
Listen carefully, ask questions and thank the person for his or her perspective. Resist the urge to be defensive, which will surely prevent you from receiving honest feedback in the future.
If people can’t think of something in the moment, then don’t let them off the hook. Suggest that you will follow up with them and then do it.
Take your feedback to heart and commit to trying some of the ideas suggested. And, if the feedback is working, then loop back with the person who suggested it, and thank them.
- Work on your blind spot.
We all have blind spots. In our personal lives, our spouses or best friends tell us what we need to hear, and they know us better than we know ourselves in some ways.
Likewise, we have blind spots in how we lead. Ensure that you have a “truth teller” or two at work who can help you when you get in your own way and don’t realize it.
- Show employees that you care.
Employees typically won’t listen to you until they know who you are and that you care. Share stories to help people get to know you and connect with employees on a personal level. Find out, and then remember, what your team is passionate about and demonstrate that you know the little things that matter to them — a sports team, a TV show or perhaps a personal milestone.
And if you can’t be genuine, then don’t try to fake it. There’s a fine line between genuine caring and feeling manipulated.
- Involve employees in decision-making.
Tap your people to help you plan and solve problems. Chances are the people closest to a problem already have ideas about how to resolve the issue. Employees support what they help create. Ask and involve them.
- Don’t forget the fundamentals.
Always speak the truth, without exception. Share the big picture first. It helps for everyone to start with the same base of knowledge.
Cover the basic questions that employees have first — who, what, where, when, why and how. Say please and thank you. Constantly communicate the “why” to make action meaningful. Always answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” and “Why should I care?” Tell people what they need to do and help them do it. Ask questions so that you hear employees’ opinions. If you don’t know the answer, then say so.
Executing these top 13 points takes courage and speaks to the essence of the kind of leader you are. The choice is yours: the easy path or the one that requires a little chutzpah.
In the words of my two-and-a-half- year-old, when thinking about my mom: “I promise to remember GG.” Me too. There’s much to remember. These last lessons about courage and chutzpah were some of the most powerful and important.
As leaders, how can we be more courageous? Stop talking, ask for feedback and involve employees in decision-making.
Why wait? We have everything that we need right now to succeed, including all of the courage needed to lead in a compassionate, productive and healthy way.
David Grossman, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the founder and CEO of The Grossman Group, an award-winning Chicago-based communications consultancy focusing on organizational consulting, strategic leadership development and internal communications. Details: www.yourthoughtpartner.com