One of the most common questions I get asked through my management and HR consulting business is how to become a leader.
In this post I’ll share some ideas, from my perspective, of what makes a great leader. These are the ideas, or you could call them rules, by which I try to lead by.
I hope they resonate with you. But before we dive into them, it makes sense to explore the difference between leadership and management.
Management is not Leadership. Leadership is not management.
Let’s clear this up at the start. It’s my belief that management and leadership are NOT the same thing.
“The difference between a manager and a leader is that a manager focuses on doing things right, while a leader focuses on doing the right things,” – Peter Drucker
In my experience this is exactly what I’ve seen. It’s how I try to separate out the two roles. I would add that managers also have people under their supervision – people reporting in to them.
Leaders focus on strategy, direction, the market, commercial concerns and ensuring the business is moving in the RIGHT direction.
Managers support this by ensuring that the RIGHT things are being done, in the RIGHT way.
Are leaders managers?
In my experience 99% of leaders I work with, have people reporting into them, so technically this makes them managers too. And they also have work to do, which means they also need to do this work correctly.
Managers are also leaders.
Managers take the direction, vision and work they are responsible for and turn this into something that makes sense for their teams.
They have to set a team wide direction and ensure the team are working on the right things. And that those things are being worked on correctly.
Management isn’t about blindly doing what you’ve been told, it’s also about helping leaders to craft the right work by feeding into that, offering domain expertise and critically challenging those impossible requests we sometimes receive.
What follows are some thoughts, from my experience, about how to become a leader.
1 – You must lead yourself first
There can be no leadership of others, without first being able to lead yourself.
To become a great leader, you must be able to look after yourself and become a better version of who you are.
Leadership is about setting a high bar on values, behaviours, ethics and right action. To do this, it’s important to be able to control, organise and lead yourself.
Think about communication skills, health, life balance, knowing where you are going, how you treat people, how influential you are, how positive you are and much more. We’ll cover many of these in this article and video, but leadership starts with knowing who you are, who you want to become, what you want to achieve and who you want to help.
And then working tirelessly on becoming that person.
I have a Moleskine notebook with 10 rules I live my life by – rules about who I am trying to become. One of these rules is
“Don’t tell others who I am and what I believe in – show them”
And this is at the heart of leadership – demonstrating that you can lead yourself before you lead others.
- Being physically and mentally prepared
- Developing a high level of self-control
- Thinking calmly and rationally – not letting emotions make decisions for you
- Developing the ability to remain calm and poised in all situations
- Being rested and bringing your best self to work
- Not being all about business
Read more about this aspect of my work with the Pillars of Life.
2 – Leadership is about influence
Leadership is not about dictating or ordering people around – that is tyrannical behaviour.
Leadership is about influence. It is about influencing people to follow a cause, give their best at work, behave in ways that are congruent with the culture you are trying to build and to work well with others to achieve the business goals and results.
Leadership therefore requires solid communication skills, a warm and intriguing personality and the ability to hold fast to ideas you believe in.
Leadership is about role modelling and being the high bar of behaviours. Leadership is about being clear, concise and direct.
Leadership is about influencing others – and demonstrating that you are worthy of being followed.
3 – Leadership is earned
A key aspect of leadership is that it is earned.
People choose to follow a leader.
Employees don’t always get to choose their manager. Children don’t get to choose their parents.
Just because somebody has the title of manager, or leader, of chief blah – doesn’t mean they are a leader.
I’ve spent a large part of my career working with leaders who have no ability to lead at all – nor manage when it comes to that.
A title does not make you a leader. But it does give you the opportunity to become a leader.
We are all leaders in some aspect of our lives; whether that be to our kids, our family, our local community, our hobby group. We must also learn to lead in work.
As managers it can be tempting to fall back to role power to get things done. But I advise you avoid using role power unless absolutely required. Instead, focus on influence and relationship power – with good relationships you are part way to becoming a leader. Relationships are influential.
Your job is to convince those under your supervision that you are the right leader, by exhibiting the right behaviours, taking right action, valuing the right things and providing clarity.
It’s on you to demonstrate your competency.
And if you don’t? Good luck trying to lead and get the best from people.
My advice is to learn to lead and don’t rely on job titles.
Practice and get better at it – leadership is how managers get things done.
4 – Focus on behaviours
As a leader it’s essential to focus on your own behaviours.
You have a team of people all watching, studying and learning from you.
The words you choose, the way you carry yourself, your mannerisms, your casual remarks, your vocabulary, your body language, your actions, the way you treat people – they all matter.
People mimic and copy the behaviours of leaders and managers. People will deconstruct your behaviours and derive meaning from them.
People will be affected by your behaviours.
People will gravitate towards leaders who demonstrate congruent behaviours between their words and their actions. Set the bar for your behaviours exceptionally high. And live to that bar in all that you do.
Don’t tell people what you will do or what you think – show them through your behaviours and your actions.
Demonstrate how to lead people. How to talk to people. How to listen. How to present. How to make decisions. How to remain calm under pressure. How to work hard.
Show people what’s important to you and what you value.
Above all – be an example, a role model for those under your supervision – and to the rest of the business.
Your team will become a reflection of you.
A toxic, low performing team will likely have a toxic, low performing leader and management tier.
An indecisive meandering team will likely have an indecisive, meandering leader and manager.
To create a great team – you need to be a great role model.
5 – You have to care about something
I didn’t become a leader until I cared about something.
Until I found a company I cared about, with a product I believed in and a vision that I found compelling, I couldn’t lead at work.
When I became a parent, I found something I cared about.
When I found a cause outside of work that I truly cared about – I found a way to lead a community.
If we don’t care about what we are doing, and the reasons why we’re doing it – it will show through.
And as soon as it shows to others, as soon as they see you’re not 100% committed, as soon as you show a lack of enthusiasm – you’ve lost a significant factor of leadership.
Great results come from a team who are enthusiastic, motivated and passionate – and this is role modelled and instigated by leaders.
Leaders approach their work with positivity, enthusiasm and a focus that is obvious. It’s contagious. They are exciting to be around. They are compelling.
I saw this myself firsthand.
When I moved to a HR role that was all about ticking boxes, “showing we care” instead of making change – I lost my enthusiasm – and a large part of my ability to lead. I knew it. The team knew it. The business knew it. And I knew it was time to move on.
I cannot lead people in a direction that I don’t believe in.
6 – You have to care about people – but not worry too much about what other people think
Leadership is paradoxical. On the one hand you have to care about your people. On the other hand, though, you shouldn’t worry too much about what others will think about you.
Leadership means you have to look after people, care about them, put them at the heart of the business. But you should also know when to listen to them and when not to.
I’ve worked with lots of leaders whose teams are leading them.
Some leaders are being directed by others. They are worried about upsetting people. They want to make sure every decision is universally agreed upon. They are overtaken by strong personalities and loud voices.
They have little self-confidence to take on the role of leadership.
Inherent in the word Leadership is the ability to lead. If others in your team are leading you – they are the leader.
Listen to people, take on advice, gather evidence, then lead in the direction that you feel or know is right.
By doing this you may upset people, people may disagree with you, you may alienate some.
If you are swayed too easily by everyone’s opinion but your own – you’ll struggle to lead anyone anywhere.
7 – What can you control?
In my experience effective leaders don’t spend time trying to control, organise or structure something that is not inside their control.
They spend time thinking about things that are not in their control – and maybe trying to bring things under their control. But their main energy and attention is focused on those things they can control.
You cannot control other people. You cannot control the market. You cannot control the economy. You cannot control other people’s decisions. You cannot control your customers. You cannot control a pandemic.
But you can control yourself. Your own behaviours, words, actions, work, communication, effort and energy.
Leadership is often about focusing on a few core things and discarding the rest.
The times I’ve been the best leader, is when I focus only on things I CAN control – and discard those which I CANNOT.
I work with many leaders who are trying to control everything – and it shows. They end up leading on nothing.
There will be plenty of events that happen during your work as a manager or leader. Some of these will be good, some bad. But the reality is, these events are neither good nor bad – they just are.
The best leaders and managers look at what they can control during these events – and focus there. The story you tell yourself about these events will influence your behaviours, your actions, your mood, your response. Better to tell a positive or neutral story about everything, than it is to dwindle into despair.
What can you control? Move with that.
8 – Study the system you are in charge of and make it better
Leadership is about strategy and direction.
It is about leading people to something better than right now. In order to plot that future, and build a strategy, you must understand your current problems, and the capability of the system under your influence.
I work with leaders everyday who are instigating large change programs with no clear idea of what they are trying to change.
They have no handle on their problems and they have no deep understanding of the system and the work. It’s no surprise they lack confidence, make terrible decisions and the stress of it all becomes too much.
Leadership is about knowing what and who you are leading and why. It’s also about being somewhat realistic as to whether the bright future is even remotely possible. I’m not saying don’t think big – far from it, but lead towards what is potentially possible.
I worked with one organisation that was trying to change everything all at once. No easy task. But the future they wanted, with the reduced headcount they were aiming for, sounded impossible. The business simply wasn’t capable of reaching these lofty goals. And so, the business meandered and wandered and will likely never achieve these dreams.
By knowing what our system of work is doing, and studying what is stopping us from growing or releasing value, we can let change emerge.
Change is better derived by unblocking that which is stopping us from moving forward, not pushing for more. And this must come from leaders studying the work they are responsible for.
9 – People are naturally hard working
It’s my belief that everyone is naturally hard working when they are engaged in work that is clear, challenging, rewarding and focused.
To bring out this natural hard work you need to get to know your people as individuals and provide clarity, focus and direction. By knowing your people, you will understand their strengths, motivations, weaknesses and how to get the best for them.
This requires exquisite communication skills, but it also requires that you know what you’re trying to achieve.
I work with too many leaders who think they have lazy, incompetent people in their business. They don’t.
I believe everyone is naturally hard working. They just need something meaningful, interesting, compelling, difficult and challenging to work on. And that comes from leadership.
10 – Discipline to do the work
Discipline is important for effective leadership.
Not discipline of people, but discipline to do the right thing.
Discipline to do the hard work, follow the processes, improve the work, have tough conversations, and of course, the discipline to show up every day.
This discipline should come from leadership and be encouraged at all levels in the organisation.
I work with plenty of companies that have well documented, successful processes that nobody follows. They have 5 different ways of completing the same work, each one leading to different results for the customer.
I’ve even seen a leader let people do whatever they want, because these employees don’t “want” to do the work they have been asked to do.
Once you’ve understood the system of work (see point 8), fine-tuned it, removed the waste and improved it – then follow the processes and ways of working. This requires discipline.
This requires the team commit to following the processes that work, fixing work that doesn’t work and studying how work flows – always looking for ways to get better.
This sounds simple, but the reality is people like new tech, new ways of working, shiny new methodologies and the path of least resistance. From my experience, what people in work often struggle with, is following proven processes.
Once you have a process that is working and followed by those that need to – you have knowledge of how to make it better. When people follow the processes, you can see whether it works or not. When people work in random ways – you’ll struggle to gain much insight.
Discipline to do the work helps you and the team learn.
11 – You should know the work well
A leader should be seen as knowledgeable about the work and the business. You should be seen to hold information and knowledge that others do not have.
If people in the business know more about your work than you do – how can you lead them?
This doesn’t mean you should be the specialist at everything – that doesn’t make sense. But you should understand the customer, the system of work, the commercials, the delivery value chain, the people, the dynamics, the politics, the blockers to getting things done.
You should also know about communication, leadership, listening, building rapport, writing clearly, dealing with tough people, solving problems, making decisions and all of the other activities that come with leadership.
But to know this is not enough. You should also learn how to impart this to everyone in your team in a clear, friendly and teachable way.
Become so well-informed that people seek you out. Know the work better than most in your business. Become smart.
Have you ever worked with a leader who is ignorant to the world they work in, to the people they lead, to the market? They don’t inspire confidence.
Some of these leaders wing it with confidence. But there is only so long you can bluff your way through leadership.
In reality, the job of a leader is to constantly learn and study. A Personal Knowledge Management System can help you with this.
12 – Don’t do or say anything that requires an apology
In my years of work, I’ve rarely had to apologise for anything or to anyone.
That’s not because I ignore those who are upset, or those who I may have offended.
It is because I made a decision early in my career that I would never say or do anything that warranted an apology.
It served me well.
It doesn’t mean you can’t challenge people who are proposing something you don’t buy in to – but challenge in a way that is constructive and respectful.
It doesn’t mean you have to change your plans to appease everyone in your team. Instead, listen, take on advice and make a decision. After listening and taking input on the plan, there is never any need to apologise to those who do not agree with you.
Don’t say anything that will get you in to trouble. Don’t gossip, don’t silent plot, don’t bring people down. Learn to control your temper. Learn to deal with tricky people.
Don’t do stupid things. Hold the bar high.
Focus on your own energy, attention and behaviours – and remember – everyone is watching and learning from you.
Apologise when you screw up. But try hard not to do or say anything that you will need to apologise for.
13 – Communicate well
Leaders need clear, strong, positive and calm communication skills. This is where I spend a significant amount of time working with managers and leaders – on giving them a superpower in the world of work.
I often joke that 99% of business problems are caused by poor communication – I am likely not far from the truth.
The better we can become at communicating, the better we will be able to manage and lead.
Listening skills are the most important. Listen actively and well.
Then we need to learn to be clear, concise and effective – I’ve done a whole post and video on this here.
Use simple language and simple sentences.
Communicate what must be said – and nothing more.
And here is why communication is low down on the list here – because many of the above are needed in order to communicate clearly.
Because to communicate clearly, you must think clearly.
This means you should be leading yourself, knowing what you’re trying to do, studying the system, building relationships and understanding what is in your control.
By thinking clearly and understanding what you are doing – you will stand a better chance of communicating clearly.
14 – Credit belongs to those who do the work
Leaders don’t take the limelight from the people who did the work. Leadership is about recognising, acknowledging and rewarding good work.
Try to give positive feedback for good work and behaviours that lead to a positive culture. Give negative feedback for behaviours that fall below the standard.
Always direct positive energy to where it belongs.
Leaders acknowledge and thank people for excellent work – they never take credit for other people’s work.
Sadly – I’ve known too many leaders, managers and consultants who will claim the glory from the work of others.
If leadership were easy, this list would only have a few items on it. But leadership is hard.
Leadership is not a title, it is something that is developed, earned and garnered by people who care about something, care about people and care about themselves.
Leadership and management positions give us the opportunity to learn how to managers and leaders. They give us a chance to become who we have the potential to become.
At the heart of leadership, from the Cultivated Management perspective, is the need to become a better person; a role model who leads by example and shows the world the kind of person they are.
And with that – good luck on your journey to leadership.
Until next time.