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How to become a better leader

A lot of clients ask us about how to become a better leader. Leadership is very confusing, nebulous and grainy. People always tell me they want to be a motivational leader and inspire their team. That’s nice, but I know many leaders who were fired even though they inspired, motivated, and gave a compelling vision to their teams.

The leaders who don’t get fired are the ones who help their teams be successful. Even if you’re the CEO of a company with 100,000 employees, your direct reports are your team because you work through them.

I have a client who runs the Asia division for one of the biggest electronics companies in the world. He was a coaching client, worked at McKinsey, and then we helped him move into this role. He’s obviously doing very well, and he’s a contender to be CEO one day. He once asked me, “How do I lead? I’ve read all these books about setting a vision.” I told him, “There are many things you can do, but you don’t have a lot of time. You have a team of direct reports. How you unlock their potential is what’s going to determine whether the potential of the entire organization is unlocked.”

Let’s assume in his case he had 7 direct reports, from design, manufacturing, R&D, sales and so on. They have their direct reports. He’s the head of Asia, and below him is Group A, which consists of his direct reports, Group B is the next level, then Group C, and so on.

I told him, “You need to meet your direct reports on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. To be a good leader, the first step is to set up a system and a process to help them achieve their goals. Step two is to teach them that same process so that when they meet their teams, level B, they unlock their potential and it cascades down the organization.”

Too often, we think of leadership as something feel-good. No, a good leader gets their team to deliver in a successful way. That’s how you need to think about leadership. Any book you read about leadership which just talks about inspiration and motivation, you inspire and motivate, but if your teams aren’t successful, you’re not a very good leader. If you hit seven quarters of declining revenue, no amount of inspiring speeches will make up for the lack of enthusiasm they feel because they aren’t successful. A leader always focuses on success. And I am not talking about success at all cost. It’s about empowering and teaching their direct reports to unlock their value.

There are methodologies and techniques to do this. With selected executive coaching clients, we use The Leadership Journal, which is only available to them. We show them techniques. We even show them how to run a meeting on a Monday or a Friday and what to do in that meeting to help their direct reports be successful. If your company grows, your team is successful and learning new skills, and the teams of those teams are successful, you will be a successful leader. That’s how you need to think about leadership.

As always, don’t be excited when you learn how to do analysis. There’s a time and place to be a great strategist who only does analysis. If you’re excited about analysis but your role is to get things done, you’re a leader, and a leader gets things done.

I hope you understand this. We obviously apply a lot of analytic skills, a lot of thinking and a lot of deep understanding of value, but at the end of the day, we have to convince someone to do something about it in a way that’s successful. That’s what you should be thinking about as you read these insights and as you plan your career.

This is an excerpt from Monday Morning 8 a.m. newsletter, issue #12. 

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