Three Things That Good Leaders Do Well

June 24, 2016 | Bill Catlette | HCI
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Regardless of title or position, the foundation of leadership for every one of us, rests on three essential pillars: Managing Yourself, Leading Others, and Managing the System. Let’s take them in that order.

1. Managing Self – Being a competent, well-ordered person is the first (and arguably most difficult) pre-condition to being an admired and effective leader. Put simply, we have to get ourselves squared away before we can hope to deal effectively with others.

People who would join our merry band, be it for an hour, a year, or a lifetime aren’t signing up to work with, let alone follow, somebody who is clueless, soulless, mean-spirited, disorganized, inarticulate, insecure, or self-absorbed. We don’t have to be perfect in each of these dimensions (we’re human, after all), but we do have to be competent - consistently competent. Four days of being a nice guy every week, followed by being a jerk for a day doesn’t cut it. I’m still learning, too, but here are a few things that have helped me in this regard:

Become a master of your time and priorities. Start with knowing what your priorities are, at all times.  This includes having (read, making) time to think. If you are a leader, you get paid to think! Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

In order to have some hope of keeping my uppermost priorities immediately in view, I try to work with a short list of three or fewer priorities. It’s not that there aren’t other things that are important, but everything can’t be a top 3 item. Besides, with all the other loose stuff rattling around in my head, three is about all I can remember. Then, as best I can, I attempt to have most of my daily tasks line up in support of one or more of those priorities. That’s easier said than done, particularly when others have input to your “to-do list”, but it is vital nonetheless. Keep at it.

Make self-development a priority, regardless of where you are in your career arc, or how inclined your employer is to participate. Our development, as both a professional and a person starts with a thoughtful, objective picture of our strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations. From there, we have to commit the effort and resource necessary to improving those things that we desire to strengthen. This is to an ever-greater degree a DIY proposition these days. It helps to be as thoughtful about your development plan as you are your financial plan, perhaps more so.

Encourage candor. Have at least one person around you who can be counted on to be a truth-teller; someone who has the courage to come in, close the door, and tell you that you’re going a little off the rails, that you’ve just offended somebody, you need a day off, or that your newest idea is a non-starter. Preferably someone other than your boss, this could be a peer, coach, team-member, or significant other. Treasure them, and realize that they are trusting that you will accept the feedback in the manner intended. Don’t make them regret it.

2. Leading Others – By definition, being a leader implies that there are those who would follow us in productive effort. While the terms and conditions of their followership merit attention, let’s save that for another day, and focus instead on some of the important mechanics:

Make people a priority. You’ve really got to care about the people on your team. You don’t always have to like them, but you do have to care about them – enough so for them to really know that you care, and that you have their best interests at heart. Otherwise, you’ll never see any of their discretionary effort. Be especially diligent in finding and selecting their teammates - talented people who will keep them on their toes, and with whom they will be proud to do great work.

Demonstrate your caring by taking a genuine interest in them… their goals, aspirations, fears, joys, and interests. Be willing to spend some of your time, influence, and other resource to help them pursue things that are important to them. Stick up for them when necessary, and don’t let anyone abuse or humiliate them, ever.

Share information with your team, making certain that both your send and receive mechanisms (especially the listening part) are operative. In his book, Moments of Truth, former Scandinavian Airlines CEO, Jan Carlzon suggested that, “people without information cannot take responsibility. People who have information can’t help but take responsibility.”   

A central focus of a being a manager, at any level, is to make meaning – to credibly and clearly articulate where we’re going, why, and what’s being asked of each “cast member” as Disney calls them, and to do it using the language, context, format, and device most familiar to them, not us. We’ve got to get good at communicating in big, bold, universally understood strokes (as with a crayon) else people simply won’t buy into the message.

Set your sights high. As humans, it’s natural for us to complain about high standards, but deep down, we understand that they are vital to a winning effort. Sadly, too many leaders, resultant from a courage deficit, or perhaps in an effort to be popular, continually lower the bar of expectation until they reach the point that no one with any brains or ability wants to play in their sandbox. Don’t be that leader. Instead, starting with your expectations of yourself, set a high bar. Raise it over time, and when necessary, remove people who can’t or won’t measure up.

3. Managing the System – In a nutshell, as leaders, we are tasked with ‘getting the wash out’, and for taking hundreds of little steps (and a few big ones) to enable our teammates to do their very best, most productive work. Here’s one important thought in that regard:

Seek out and eliminate the ‘clunkers’. Every workplace has a structure, a system for how it does things... policies, procedures, methods, etc. Like any other machinery, over time, certain aspects of our internal systems become outmoded, irrelevant, or fall into disrepair. The result is that this produces friction, which impedes productive effort, increases cost, and wears people down.

A perfect contemporary example is the U.S. commercial air travel system, which daily earns the scorn of passengers who fall victim to a horribly inefficient (and ineffective) security screening and boarding process. With a few rather simple policy changes having to do with airline fees for checked vs. carry-on luggage, and security protocols that currently assume everyone to be an equal and identical threat, much of this friction and attendant annoyance could be reduced.  

I can see the heads nodding of anyone who has traveled in the last six months.  Before we get too smug, though, let’s realize that our own internal systems (yours, mine, all of them) have similar dysfunction that keeps our people from doing their best work, and some of that spills over into the laps of our own customers. It is our job to spend time daily identifying and fixing these clunkers. Let’s get busy.


Bill Catlette is an executive coach, business author, and advisor to management whose mission is to develop competent, confident leaders who get results, people want to work with, & companies are willing to place big bets on.