Good leadership. Countless books, seminars, TED Talks, and articles have attempted to explain what it is and how to emulate it. But what does it really mean for us on a day-to-day basis?
Instead of interviewing another organizational psychologist or management expert, I decided to ask my inner circle of friends and colleagues what good leadership means to them.
What Does Good Leadership Consist Of?
My question-asking took me (virtually) from Zagreb to Bangkok to a tiny town in the mountains of Idaho. The respondents come from various backgrounds, from a private school principal to a nomadic artist, and even an ER nurse.
I asked them all this question: What makes someone a good leader? Here’s what they had to say.
“A good leader is someone that you can trust and that is able to activate the full potential of their team. The most important leadership quality is to be able to inspire team members to take actions which will result in achieving the shared vision. I definitely believe in leading by example; it's the best way to promote good practice and shared values.”
- Luka, Computer Engineer, Zagreb, Croatia
From an internship with a Swedish company in Sri Lanka to a sales job in New Zealand, Luka, a native of Croatia, has professional experience across different cultures, so I was curious if his definition of good leadership changed depending on the country. His answer? No.
Trust is universally desirable. In YPO’s Global Pulse Survey on Trust, which talked to nearly 3,000 CEOs in 115 countries, 95% of them said building and maintaining trust with stakeholders is a high priority, but not even half (40%) find it easy to do so with employees. Clearly, leaders are struggling in this area, but there are proven ways to build trust on your team.
Putting Others First
“Leadership begins with respect. Imagine yourself having dinner with other people: Do you know that one person who waits for everyone to be served before starting to eat? Or the one who fills everyone's cups before filling his own? Well, those are the little gestures that earn my respect.” - Guillermo López Olmos, Export Manager, Spain
Most of us were raised to respect those in positions of authority. But Guillermo’s quote got me thinking — do those in positions of power go out of their way to respect those they lead?
As it turns out, it matters to employees more than we may realize. In a Harvard Business Review survey of nearly 20,000 employees worldwide, researchers found that treating workers with respect is the number one thing leaders can do if they want their employees to be happy and healthy.
Being shown respect mattered more than recognition, appreciation, growth opportunities, and feedback. Employees who felt respected had 56% better health and well-being, 89% greater job satisfaction, and 92% higher focus.
Justice And Equality
“I think a good leader is someone who leads with compassion and empathy, and not with ego. They do not dominate, but encourage contributions for group success. However, they are comfortable and capable of making decisions when they need to be made. A good leader is ethical and has a good moral compass that is rooted in justice and equality.” - Nicki Post, Writer, Artist, and Nomad, Turkey
Nicki was the only person I interviewed who specifically named justice and equality in her definition of good leadership, which aligns well with how we met. My first interaction with her was at a birthday dinner for a mutual friend, where I watched Nicki patiently explain to another guest why the term he was frequently using was misogynistic and harmful (something I had been too afraid to do).
Her callout of justice and equality makes sense: Leaders are in positions of authority, and those wielding power are most equipped to correct injustices. A leader with a solid moral compass will be able to point their followers in the right direction, making doing the right thing a given in the organization’s culture. I wonder how many corporate scandals might have been avoided had there been at least one leader with the integrity to stand up against wrongdoing.
Communicating An Alluring Vision
“In Servant Leadership, Robert Greenleaf said that it's seekers that make prophets, meaning you're only a leader if people want to follow you. And to motivate people to follow you, it takes more than good manners and a pleasant temperament. You need to be able to communicate a clear and convincing vision that's so alluring people can't help but join you along the journey.” - James McCammon, Senior Program Manager at Microsoft, New York
Coined by Greenleaf in his seminal essay on the topic, servant leadership is characterized by a desire to serve, not a thirst for power.
And servant leadership is good for both employees and organizations. One study published in the academic journal SAGE Open found that servant leadership boosts trust between supervisor and subordinate, particularly affective trust, which is a feeling of security and empathy. Other studies have found that servant-led companies have higher returns.
Self-Awareness And Compassion
“To me, a good leader is someone who is self-aware, compassionate, and possesses the ability to change their mind. These attributes may be weighted differently in each individual, but I truly believe all of them are necessary for effective leadership.” - Sophia Lee, Freelance Writer, Minneapolis, Minnesota
As a solo business owner, I’ve often viewed leadership as an abstract concept—something I interview people about and write articles about, but not something I experience or demonstrate on a daily basis. However, what Sophia shared with me changed my perspective on leadership as a freelancer:
“Even now, as a business of one, I think a lot about leadership. Reflecting on what type of leader I'd want to be if I had employees helps guide my business decisions. For example, I would never set a deadline that required my employee to work over the weekend, so why would I do that to myself? Similarly, I would never berate an employee for making a mistake, so why wouldn't I show myself the same compassion?”
As a sole proprietor, I am leading the most important person in my life: myself. Sophia made me realize that being an effective leader starts with self-compassion.
Bringing Out The Best In People
“Good leadership is not a dictatorship. Instead, it is based on mutual respect, communication, accountability, and leading by example. Good leaders inspire people to do great work.” - Tiffany Alexy, Broker/Owner at Alexy Realty Group, Cary, North Carolina
Before starting her real estate business, Tiffany worked under all sorts of leaders with differing personalities, visions, and styles.
“I feared some of them,” she told me, “and others, I worked my heart out for.”
The qualities of the leaders who inspired her highest effort? All of the traits she outlined above: respect, communication, accountability, and leading by example.
The leadership style of those that she feared is known as autocratic or authoritarian, where the leader calls the shots without asking for input from the team. This style is generally frowned upon in modern-day management but can work in specific situations, such as in a crisis when quick and confident decisions are critical. Autocratic leadership is direct and gets the job done, but can hurt morale and breed mistrust. In other words, it can work—but it rarely inspires great work.
Knowing When To Lead
“Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses in team members is important, but I feel it is even more important for a good leader to be able to inspire a team member to develop their strengths and to overcome their weaknesses. Leaders need to be able to delegate and oversee, but leading by example is also important. I don't ask anything of those I lead if I'm not willing to do it myself when needed.” - Eryn Tucker, Registered Nurse/Emergency Medicine Travel Nurse, St. Maries, Idaho
Eryn’s work environment is an excellent example of when autocratic leadership can be ideal (when balanced with reflection and openness). Because her job involves life-or-death situations, Eryn and her fellow nurses must switch into an autocratic leader mode and call the shots they think are best to save a patient’s life.
“The ER requires strong, outspoken personalities,” she said, “nurses who aren't afraid to take charge in one moment, then learn from teammates the next.”
And that last part is key: knowing when to switch from grabbing the steering wheel to handing over control to someone else who’s capable.
Facing The Hard Truths
“Someone that can have a laugh with the housekeeper, tell a story to some clients to make them feel important, and strike just the right tone with employees in conflict. I like the camping trip metaphor. How many leaders, stripped of office space, suits, and position, could lead a group of people up a trail in the dark, in the forest, in rain, to safety and shelter and not take any credit for it?” - Stephen Dexter, Jr., Upper School Principal at the American International School of Croatia, Zagreb, Croatia
As someone helping his school navigate a pandemic, Stephen has, in a very real way, led his own staff and students through the “dark, rainy forest” of an outbreak and ensuing shutdowns in Zagreb. It’s no surprise that one of the principles that guides Stephen’s leadership is “the capacity to face the hard truths,” adapted from the “13 Behaviors of High Trust Leaders” by Stephen Covey (author of the popular self-help book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).
“Too many leaders don't want bad news,” Stephen told me. “They don't want to face the hard truths for fear that the discomfort will jeopardize their position.”
“A natural courage and persistence, ability to take responsibility, and open-mindedness. An ability to inspire the team to fly while having one foot on the ground, to watch their backs.” - Aivars Lipenitis, B2B Tech Go-to-Market Strategist, Latvia
Aivars has launched too many businesses for me to keep track of (seriously, I tried to get him to explain them all to me and just gave up). But suffice it to say that much of his views on leadership are influenced by his involvement in startups—either his own or those of the founders he advises.
Courage is a definite must-have for leaders in ventures where the odds are stacked against them. I want to point out that courage, as Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, is not the absence of fear. Quite the contrary, it’s doing things that frighten you. (Doing things that don’t scare you doesn’t require bravery.)
“A good leader is someone who can connect with each team member on an individual level, while collectively guiding them at a group level, to accomplish certain business goals. A good leader is able to blend into the team and work side by side with their colleagues, but also able to take up a more senior role in the team and delegate work when necessary without there being major doubt from the team of their capabilities to lead. A good leader takes full responsibility for the outcome of their teams' work.” - Bianca Vermeulen, Owner and Virtual Assistant at Beyond Business Virtual Services, Georgia
For me, the leadership quality that Bianca’s answer boils down to is adaptability. When you’re in charge, you never know what might be thrown your way (ahem, global pandemic, anyone?). Adaptability, with a dash of humility, is crucial. A good leader is never “too above” climbing into the trenches with their team to do the work—even when it gets messy.
Less Ego, More Empathy
“A good leader is someone who is able to separate their ego from their work. They recognize first and foremost that everyone is a human, and that someone's output is not reflective of their worth—or of their leader—and treats others in a way that supports that.” - Edna Zhou, Writer and Photographer, Bangkok, Thailand
Edna was the second person on this list to mention that good leaders don’t have a huge ego, which is a pretty big clue that bad leaders often do. Before sending me her response, Edna reflected on all the not-so-great bosses she’s had, and what separated them from the leaders she admires.
“It really boiled down to empathy,” she told me. “And I think the lack of empathy in a leadership role stems partly from a lack of being able to separate ego from worth. A lot of people aren't sure of their own worth, so they try to make up for it by finding external validation through work or other people, and as soon as a project or a subordinate messes up, they take that too personally and think it's somehow a reflection on their effectiveness as a leader.”
What Is Good Leadership? The Discussion Continues...
If everyone were in agreement about what good leadership is, you wouldn’t be reading this article right now. If there were one magic ingredient that would instantly transform you into a good leader, entire segments of the business/self-help industry would poof into thin air.
The truth is, what makes someone effective at leading others varies by industry and situation, and can be highly subjective. Asking my friends and colleagues for their thoughts on the matter was eye-opening and helped an abstract-feeling concept become concrete and actionable to me.
Though their responses were diverse, a few common themes stood out:
- Good leaders admit when they’re wrong.
- Good leaders show empathy.
- Good leaders inspire people to be better.
- Good leaders lead by example.
I also made a word cloud of all the answers, and these occurred the most often:
- Leading by example
So what makes a good leader? All of the above, and probably more.
Good or bad, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello)!