With age comes experience, and with experience usually comes expertise. Whether you’re being assigned a new role through a promotion or you created that role yourself through your own business or vocation, you will most likely someday earn the right to lead.
Although many of us might initially be uncomfortable with the idea of stepping into the limelight and taking command, it’s simply a new task or job that, as Leadership scholar Warren Bennis states, we all have the capacity to learn. When you finally decide to accept a leadership position or if you want to someday earn the role, then you must learn these three rules in order to maximize your chances of success.
First Rule: You must be goal-oriented
To borrow from Earl Nightingale’s example in “The Strangest Secret,” life is like a boat at sea. If you just leave it in the middle of the ocean without a crew, it will likely crash or sink after some time. If the ship, however, has an experienced crew and captain with a complete voyage planned out, then it will very likely succeed at it and return to the harbor safely. Although the winds and waves may blow them off course, the captain gives feedback and directions all throughout the journey so the crew never loses direction. The same is true for leadership: You will only succeed at it for the long run if you know how to choose, focus on, and accomplish the right goals.
When you were an ordinary employee, you most likely had an assigned job and you only took orders from your superiors. When you become a leader, you are the one who will need to make difficult decisions and give orders. Your primary job, however, is to make sure that all of that will lead towards accomplishing your team’s goals. Where are you needed? What were you all hired to do? Why does your team or department exist? Focus on that. When you or some of your team members make mistakes or stray off course, then you must give feedback in order to steer everyone back into the right direction.
By the way, there’s another value of having clear goals: It’s easier to become more productive when you plan and focus on your priorities. Eliminate the things that you don’t need to do like adding unnecessary details to reports that nobody reads or spending too much time doing “market research” on facebook. If it’s not necessary for your goals in the short and long term, then simply stop doing it.
When you’ve completed all the tasks that you need to do for the day and you gain some free time, you can plan in advance and start completing the tasks you need for tomorrow, next week, or next month. Start brainstorming and creating drafts for those proposals and plans that you submit every month. Aside from that, you must also plan and start training your team members with the skills and knowledge they might need in case of emergencies and, although this might seem much, you should start planning for your future successor. In my case, I wrote pages and pages of step-by-step guides for almost every conceivable operation as a reference for my team as well as for our future team members.
Completing work you need for next week or next month may seem difficult, but it’s definitely worth it. Just imagine your boss asking you for that Christmas proposal and all you need to do is print it out since you already finished it last October. If you make that a habit, you and your team will not only be less stressed, you’ll also earn a lot of free time as you’ll only need to do the minor tasks that pop up every now and then.
Second Rule: You must take responsibility
As mentioned earlier, you used to just take orders before but now you are responsible for making difficult decisions, giving orders, and handling the consequences that they bring. One not-so-well-known fact about how good leaders make decisions is that, as Warren Bennis of “On Becoming a Leader” stated, you also have to listen to your intuition or that “inner voice” that guides you to what you need to do. If you want to get scientific, it’s your subconscious mind which, as Daniel Goleman the author of “Focus” and “Emotional Intelligence” states, is the collection of all your knowledge and experience. It’s also the part of your mind which can make the calculations necessary in order to achieve the best possible outcome. Aside from considering the facts, you have to trust your gut when making decisions and take calculated risks without being afraid of making mistakes. It’s very difficult to lead and inspire your team’s confidence if you constantly have to second guess yourself.
Another lesson that leaders must learn that we must take responsibility for the mistakes that happen, whether it’s our own or our team’s. One of the worst things you can do as a leader is to pass the blame on to your team members. Nothing kills trust faster than pinning the blame and stabbing people in the back.
I personally remember one mistake we made as we forgot to activate a limited-time revenue generating project. I’ve personally had to answer to the Chief Operating Officer (COO, second-in-command to the CEO) about it and I told him firmly that it won’t happen again. Although he was mad, he understood that we are aware of the gravity of the situation. Learning from that mistake, we’ve developed a new system to prevent such things from recurring.
On another instance, there’s a rather important regular report whose data had to be collected by the entire department and submitted to top management at a certain time of the day. Since it was a very busy afternoon, none of us at the department realized that we missed the deadline. By then, nobody wanted to submit it since they were scared of the verbal thrashing that comes afterward. I told them to send me the data and I submitted the report. Sure enough, I was soon asked to send a “written explanation” to upper management as to why the report was late. It’s a leader’s responsibility to do what needs to be done, especially when everyone else is too scared to do it.
Third Rule: You have to accept that not everyone will agree with you.
One lesson that I learned from John Maxwell is that “when you get kicked in the rear, it means you’re out in front.” As a leader you have to realize that no matter how well-intentioned your actions and decisions are, not everyone will agree to them. What’s good for your team’s productivity might require extra work that people initially hate, and what management wants might not be good for your team’s well-being. You have to think long and hard in order to find the option that gives the greatest benefit for all. “Think Win-Win” as Stephen Covey said in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” even if it’s not exactly what everyone wants.
You will near certainly face a lot of criticism from those above you as well as those below you. There’s nothing you can do about it but to keep improving yourself, take care of your team, and keep working towards your goals.
If you’re still having trouble with listening to criticisms, John Maxwell gave four steps in his book “Leadership Gold”:
- Know Yourself – What are you like as a person? What is your leadership style? Do you tend to delegate too much? Do you forget to give positive feedback all the time? Do you often act distant or aloof? The last three were some aspects of my style and a few of the reasons why my first team left me, however, I have soon found new team members who did well with my “full independence” style.
- Change Yourself – If the criticism is valid, then the best option would be to learn how to do better and improve yourself. Although I’ve kept the habits that are beneficial, I did learn better methods of delegating tasks and how to give positive feedback more often.
- Accept Yourself – Leo Buscaglia said “The easiest thing to be in the world is you. The most difficult thing to be is what other people want you to be. Don’t let them put you in that position.” You have your own style that works for you and plays to your strengths, so keep using and refining it. Just make sure to follow what’s required and attempt to go above and beyond it.
- Forget Yourself – This is the last step. Again, you’d get criticised whatever you do. Forget about the unjust claims against you and focus on working towards your team’s goals.
Leadership is an art that takes a lifetime of experience and self-reflection to master. Although there are many other lessons that you will need to learn as you grow and develop as a leader, you can consider the three you’ve read here as a few basic guidelines that can help you on your journey. I hope you find your own unique style of leadership and may you learn to lead yourself and the people around you to greater heights.