Being an Extraordinary Leader

Leaders come in many varieties. Anyone over the age of 25 has already learned that through experience. The awful bosses stay with us in the form of cautionary tales. But the extraordinary leaders don’t just stay in our memories. They change us. 

When you work for someone like that, you become better than you thought you could be. You promise more, take bigger risks and work harder. Great leaders see us differently than do other people. And so, we become more, better, bigger, braver, and smarter by working for them.

But now, you are a leader. What experience do your employees have as part of your team?

Do Leaders Matter?

I work with a lot of founders and their leadership teams. The sad truth is that most leaders are not extraordinary. Many are not even good.

Does it matter? I think so. Being a venture-funded start-up has different pressures than other organizations. Unlike bootstrapped enterprises, the pressure is external. Investors demand abnormally fast growth –well beyond the typical trajectory for businesses.

That external demand requires equal internal urgency. Leaders of start-ups must be able to cultivate a proportional level of relentlessness and drive within their teams. But a drive that kindles real passion and creativity does not emerge through force, manipulation or commissions.

The Non-Great Leaders

Imagine an organization that has a huge vision– an ambitious, unlikely set of targets –and a LOT at stake in achieving it all. Now consider these three variations on a Founder/CEO.

  • The leader is entirely focused on the scoreboard: OKRs, projections, charts, graphs, and his vision. The team is lonely and isolated. They wonder what he’s working on or what he thinks of their work or if he thinks of them at all. While the KPIs loom large in their consciousness, they don’t know their CEO or have an emotional connection to his vision.
  • This leader is self-consumed. She spends every meeting talking about herself, and the deals she is creating.  She never asks her team for feedback because she already knows everything and is too busy doing the next thing. She leaves early at team events. And at client visits she monopolizes the client interactions even though their regular account manager organized the visit and is present. 
  • This leader is an autocrat. When things are off-track he is accusatory. He repudiates in public and has no interest in the source of slowdowns. Despite the daunting goals he has set, he constantly makes new demands through Slack and email. The team is skeletal and over-tasked with existing goals, but he continually distracts them with new tasks–often ones that are mere sparks of an idea, and therefore require a great deal of time to be fleshed out enough to be abandoned.

Lots of leaders are like these. I am absolutely NOT saying they are doomed to fail. But they have a rougher path. Doing the unprecedented is already hard. But when your boss is the source of your loss in velocity, reduction in self-esteem or undermines your sense of belonging, it can become untenable. A new employer may seem like just the thing.

Back to You

What kind of leader are you committed to being?  I don’t think people ask this question nearly enough. Almost anyone ascending a white collar, organizational ladder is, de facto, aiming for leadership. So, reflecting on the kind of leader you want to become should be an integral part of the development path.

When we think about leadership in general, it’s mostly the external signals that we imagine. TED talks, keynotes, Inc. Magazine cover, 2 million Twitter followers.

But the thing we should ponder is how we want those we lead to see us –and themselves. Is the goal to impress them? Scare them? Something else?

Innate Traits

Some people are born charismatic and likely to step to the front of the room. Historically, they leave behind an impression of their own greatness. But that’s star power. It’s not necessarily great leadership. Only one trait is memorable. Charisma.

Charisma is compelling. Leaders with star power inspire admiration and awe. Are those important measures of leadership?

They may be important to some of the stakeholders. They help to garner good PR and impress the marketplace. Those are not inconsequential.

But most important are the results of the organization across multiple dimensions.  

The Data

Research has distinguished three primary models of effective leadership—as measured by results. None of them require charisma.

Leaders who focus their attention on connecting with, understanding, and building trust with their teams have the best overall results. They not only have employees that individually out-perform others, they also have markedly more collaboration, innovation (as measured by patents), higher margins, lower employee turnover, better ethical compliance and faster hiring.

What to Strive Toward

If you are interested in developing yourself as a leader with results like those, there are some easy places to start. Depending on what kind of leader you already are, they may be easier or harder. For those who are inclined toward a servant-leader style, many of them will be second nature.

For those who rely on their charisma, crave the approval and adoration of others, or need to be the smartest person in the room, they will be challenging. But even the most narcissistic of us can alter our behavior when the results demand it.

Spotlight The Team
Instead of shining a light on your own achievements, give credit to the team or someone on it–and not just the guy who closed the big deal. What about the person who wrote the blog that garnered a flood of inbound leads? Or the guy in engineering who reduced AWS costs by 8%? Put them in the spotlight.

Listen Keenly:
I often see leaders checking their phones while on Zoom calls, or leaving a meeting to do something on their phone or make a call. You can’t connect or learn if you’re not present. Give all your attention to the speaker –especially if they work for you.

Grow Employees to Leave:
This sounds counterintuitive. Your employees want to move up. If they can’t do it in your organization, help build their capacity to go elsewhere. Mentoring, training, and coaching are among the qualities that make leaders (and their teams) magnetic. Plus, development is a top priority for Gen Z employees.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, talks in his autobiography about his own transformation from being a know-it-all people driver to becoming an empathetic, curious, servant-leader. His most salient trait went from being smart to being empathetic. Not coincidentally, Microsoft regained its world-class footing concurrently. Listening keenly delivers.

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