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If Titles Don’t Make Leaders…What Does?

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Before setting up my own business. I worked in corporations for about 30 years.  Reflecting on the people I once worked for in the corporate world, I started categorizing my best and worst bosses and what they did and did not do which led me to see them as either good or bad leaders.

I’ve got three things to share with you today. . .

  • An example of a good leader
  • An example of a bad leader
  • My thoughts on five characteristics of a good boss and potentially, a good leader

Good Leadership

I was middle manager in a manufacturing operation when I worked for Dave. When I worked for Dave, I did some of my best work ever. He had good business skills and good people skills. I was inspired to do great work and tried to pass that inspiration along to my staff. When I made mistakes (yes, we all do!) I always felt Dave had my back. He would focus on what happened, and what I learned from the experience. A high level of trust developed, and it was safe to say almost anything. Dave was humble, knew he didn’t have all the answers, and asked for inputs and feedback from his team regularly. He shared everything he could, except confidential stuff, so I always knew the “big picture” and what was most important. We set annual performance goals together and they were usually a stretch. He left me to figure out with my team how to achieve them.

Bad Leadership

I worked for Albert (not his real name) when I was a project manager. I work best with broad goals. Albert liked to micromanage me and insisted on weekly meetings to review in detail every project I had. His leadership style was very different from mine.  To try and bridge the gap between his way of managing and mine, I had a card with personality styles on my desk reminding me that when I talked to him / emailed him I needed to give the information in a way he would like. i.e. very detailed. Positive feedback from Albert was rare, and I often wondered how he thought I was doing. It seemed difficult to do my best work as I needed to be doing things more “his way” than “my way”. More responsibilities got added on regularly, and always in addition to the work my team was already doing. Requests to discuss priorities and take some projects off the table were ignored. I often wondered what he knew that he was not sharing with me as he never talked about the broader company perspective. I never felt supported by Albert, and the constant stress led to health issues.

So…here are my thoughts on what makes a boss a good or bad leader…

Albert was highly controlling (do things my way) and adept at criticizing and finding faults (with me and others). Looking back, most of the people I worked for who I think are poor leaders were similar.

Dave had some wonderful qualities that I’ve also seen in other good leaders. Here’s what I think are good leadership qualities in the best bosses I had:

  • They related well to others
  • They were aware of the bigger picture
  • They delivered extraordinary results
  • They were authentic and courageous
  • They had a high degree of self-awareness

Here’s what these qualities mean to me…

They related well to others

I think relating well to others is the foundation of good leadership. Without it all the other skills and competencies will be much less effective.

Good leaders got to know the people on their team, (and everyone else they interact with). That meant getting to know what their staff are good at, getting to know about their families and interests, and what kind of work they like doing most. This curiosity about people helped the good leaders understand their team as individuals and to develop everyone in ways that were personally motivating. Good leaders brought out the best in others and drew on the collective ideas of the team. I often read about good leaders being “humble” and that’s true for the best leaders I’ve worked for: they didn’t seek the credit for the good work their team has done and recognized that results were a team effort.

They were aware of the bigger picture

The good leaders I’ve worked with had a “big picture” outlook. They were aware of what was going on in the company as well as their own organization and lined up the work they are doing to the direction the company was heading. They were good at helping others in their department see how their work contributes to the organization’s success. They saw the world as having the business, technical, and people sides of work all connected: a change to one part rippled out to the other parts. Short term projects were seen in the context of the longer-term goals. The good leaders adjusted quickly to changes in direction at the top: what was a good plan at the start of the year might not be half way through the year.

They delivered extraordinary results

The best leaders were good with relationships AND got results. Whether it’s managing a department or projects effectively the good leaders consistently achieved above average results. They were clear about what the goals and priorities are, shared that with their team and focused on delivering on time and within budget. They enlisted help from people outside their department who may have expertise or contacts that could be helpful. They were good at staying on track and not following the “bright shiny objects” that could take their attention away from what mattered most… One year my team achieved some excellent results from a project…it saved the company millions of dollars, reduced cycle time and increased quality. The feedback from my boss was that it was a really good year AND he challenged me to have an even better one next year. I had no idea how to do that, then (with his help and encouragement) I went on to exceed all expectations… Good leaders lift everyone up in pursuit of extraordinary results.

They were authentic and courageous

I’ve met some managers who would go with the flow even though they privately thought the direction was wrong, or even unethical. When the best leaders I’ve worked for believe in something they stood up and made their views known, even if it was unpopular. They were likely to take tough stands, and would (when appropriate) bring up the “undiscussables” that every organization has… It takes courage to do that. Those good leaders I’ve worked with were consistent in the values and principles that they believed in…it didn’t change based on the circumstances or the people. The good leaders were consistent in working with their staff, their peers, their bosses, or anyone else…

They had a high degree of self-awareness

The best leaders I’ve worked with knew their strengths and their limitations…and constantly strived to get better. Emotional intelligence is a current buzz-word and the best leaders I knew thought before they spoke and tried to take the “high road” at all times. I was lucky to work for Nortel Networks, a company that believed in developing managers.  All of us who worked there did “360 degree” assessments every few years. There is nothing like a good “360” to make you aware of your strengths and areas for development (aka weaknesses)! However, the best leaders took the feedback to heart, took training classes, read books and from time used an executive coach to improve their leadership.

I counted 20 bosses in my corporate career, and I’d say 3 qualified as good leaders. I’m fortunate to have learned from them on my own leadership journey.

As you reflect on your own leadership journey, who were the outstanding bosses you worked with, and what made them exceptional?

What do you want your leadership legacy to be, and what do you want your staff, bosses and clients to be saying about you?

What is your “one big thing” that you are ready to commit to work on changing — the one thing about yourself that if you were to really make progress on it, would be life and career changing?

David Green

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