There’s a scene in episode six of the first season of “Billions” where Bobby Axelrod is standing on top of a table trying to rally his team as the government gets closer to taking him and Axe Capital down. He uses storytelling (Pearl Harbor) and emotion to elicit action from those standing in front of him.
Privately, however, Bobby is concerned about the threats to his company and reputation. He does not let this on though. Because if he did, it would have devastating consequences across the company, both financially and from a moral perspective.
This is not about whether Bobby is right or wrong, but an example of strong leadership. In fact, it’s rampant throughout the series. For example, Bobby doesn’t tell his team how to do their jobs, but points them to a north star objective and lets them figure it out from there, which, for the most part, they always do.
For the last year, I’ve given a lot of thought to what makes a great leader. I don’t believe there is any single model, let alone one right model, for leadership. But I do believe there are certain attributes and intangibles, that once assembled, can at least increase your likelihood of success.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, nor should that be expected here. But I wanted to share my perspective on leadership. Many of these thoughts I’ve previously shared with others, including the students I teach at New York University. My hope is now by making them more widely available I can help others.
In a recent Inc.com article, the author wrote about a survey Google provided their employees to evaluate their manager. What’s most fascinating is that the survey didn’t try to assess the manager’s depth of knowledge, skills or experience. Rather the focus was on their soft skills, including communication, respect, feedback, and coaching.
Recently, I went through the Marshall Goldsmith leadership training program. In his popular book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” Goldsmith outlines that the higher you rise within an organization, the problems you encounter become more behavioral than tactical.
What that means is just because you can do your job well, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to lead people to do that same job just as well. Especially in digital, change happens so rapidly that you can’t even tell someone six months from now how to do their job.
This was echoed on a Bill Simmons podcast recently, where former ESPN President and current DAZN President John Skipper said the more senior you get the more you distance yourself from the work you love. I believe the “work you love,” in this case, is the hands-on executing (i.e. the pushing of the buttons) and strategy.
The term “people manager” makes so much more sense in that context. But I don’t like that term: “people manager.” You need to be a “people leader.”
Leadership, however, is not prescribed just because you know something. It’s earned — following someone, after all, is a choice. It’s how you treat people, and also how you treat yourself. You’re not going to be a perfect leader to everyone or every day — it’s the whole sum picture.
“Those at the top have all the authority and none of the information. Those at the bottom have all the information and none of the authority.” – Captain David Marquet
Ego is driven through avoidance of vulnerability. Captain Marquet’s quote above would make most people feel vulnerable about putting their success in the hands of people they can’t control. You may not be able to push the buttons for these people, but you can certainly inspire them to push those buttons as well as they can.
Let me be clear that tactical knowledge is important, but as your scope grows, it’s impossible to know everything about all the ways your team is deriving value for the organization. Thus, micromanaging becomes a virus rather than an ability to influence outcomes. And in order to influence outcomes, the leader is only a leader if there are people following.
Organizations can preach about having a great culture, but it’s the people within the organization that have to carry out the acts. Often, there are many levels for that to percolate, which means it’s up to you to display impactful leadership tactics to at least make your team’s culture the most successful that it can possibly be.
And, for myself, success begins with safety.
In Simon Sinek’s book “Leaders Eat Last,” he talks about The Circle of Safety. Sinek explains: ”Only when we feel we are in a Circle of Safety will we pull together as a unified team, better able to survive and thrive regardless of the conditions outside.”
This is by which my entire leadership model is based.
Safety offers no better emotional state for your employees. This feeling of protection comes through all the ways you treat your employees (emotionally, physically and verbally). It’s the trust you instill to build a sense of psychological safety. The output for the employee: a feeling — the exciting internal motivation and confidence you get from working on things that are meaningful to you, your organization and the outside world.
“When players find themselves in a situation where management has a great deal of integrity and they can depend on my word or anybody else’s word in the organization, they feel secure. And if the players feel secure, they don’t want to leave here. And if they don’t want to leave here, they’re going to do everything they can on the court to stay here.” – Boston Celtics Hall of Fame Head Coach Red Auerbach
Within your circle of safety, there are five core components, beginning at the center with awareness.
As I wrote about recently, awareness is at the nucleus of being a successful leader. Without a consciousness checking in on whether what you’re doing is right, wrong, enough, too much, etc. you will not be able to succeed. That said, it has to be grounded in reality — your point-of-view will typically be a little more optimistic than those you serve.
For instance, below are some of the actual results from the 360 survey a small sample of managers, co-workers, and reports provided ahead of my Marshall Goldsmith leadership training.
The following list I ended up getting better ratings than my own:
* Values Differences
* Celebrates individual and organization accomplishments
* Challenges the status quo
The following I received lower ratings than my own:
* Expresses gratitude for the work they get to do
* Takes personal responsibility in team failures
* Seeks advice in his or her development
I would be concerned if everyone else’s scores matched my own. The desire to get this feedback, and help ground my reality, is an important part of my growth. It’s now on me, after becoming aware of these areas of success and opportunity, to build on them.
This is why I don’t embrace the status quo (perhaps more than I originally thought) — comfort is a killer; chaos is bound to show up when you strive for difference; fear is a sign you’re moving in the right direction. This can only be recognized if you’re aware of your actions.
Beyond awareness, I believe there are four unique traits that you must possess to coax the highest level of performance and satisfaction out of your team:
Resulting Attribute: Motivate
“If your action inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams
In order to produce a high-functioning team that yields exceptional results, it is important to conduct yourself through inspiration and not ordering. This comes from communicating with an honest impact in regards to making people feel like they matter and that their work is meaningful.
Your job is to generate enthusiasm. You’re getting people to work towards something and not on something. This forces you to be courageous at points and show there is meaning behind the work being produced.
The more you inspire, the more meaningful the results will be, as well. You don’t simply want your employees to do X, you want them to do 10x. To get there, however, they need to believe the picture of the future you’ve painted above X is possible and be energized by what will happen once they achieve that.
One other important area of inspiration is derived from building relationships — at all levels. Forget titles and where people came from — doing so only adds ego. These are teammates and inspiring them is critical to the success for not only your team but the organization as a whole.
Resulting Attribute: Fulfill
“Great bosses and world-class organizations hire motivated people, set high expectations, and give their people room to become remarkable.” – Seth Godin
In order for your team to be remarkable, you need to give them the runway to execute. You need to be the person at the airport in the orange vest waving the orange batons, guiding the pilots but not telling them how to fly the plane. To do this, you must establish trust.
Most leaders expect that their teams trust them. But trust is earned — and the only way to earn it is to extend it. This is especially important as you move further from the frontlines, where the information you receive becomes less and less in the weeds (and also slightly distorted to what people only want to hear).
So how do you get someone to trust you? One of the most important things is to make people feel like the decisions they’re making are important. When they’re right, celebrate. When they’re wrong, embrace the failure, learn and adjust. In both cases, it’s you being your best example of a coach.
As with the aforementioned airport analogy, people want to feel as if they have the runway to be right and wrong. Your team wants to feel like you’ll forgive rather than reprimand. They, in turn, must use the failure as a learning. This isn’t to say stay completely out of the way, but if you hold them accountable and give them the tools to succeed, the empowerment should translate to positive results.
There’s also urgent and then there’s important. When employees feel like they got the job done quickly when the fire (i.e. urgent) is starting, that elicits an emotion of completeness. When employees are working on something important (i.e. meaningful), they feel valued. When these same individuals have the opportunity to have made the decisions to get there, in both cases, that’s when trust leads to amazing actions.
Resulting Attribute: Growth
“Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen.”– Pete Carroll
When a baseball player swings the bat and hits a home run, the hitting coach didn’t take the swing. Instead, the coach worked with the player to swing the bat in a way that contributed to that player’s success. But the player wasn’t the only one that benefited; the coach, manager, team, and organization did, as well.
That’s how you need to view running your team — develop people. To do this, you need to look big picture and have the appetite to create more leaders. After all, that outcome is nothing but a compliment to you as a leader.
When you’re open, transparent and credible with your team, they’ll trust your guidance. Success leaves clues, which means there are definite attributes that got you to where you are that can serve as support for their career, as well.
Coaching is not telling, it’s guiding. It’s about making that person feel important and putting them in positions to attain new soft and hard skills This growth can be everything from managing their own employees to public speaking. Whatever it is, they become more valuable, and in turn, they become more grateful.
When you are genuine, caring and selfless, your team will recognize that. We all want to feel important and if you can make someone feel that way and help them achieve more, they’ll never forget it.
Lastly, coaching is so important, I believe it’s critical to not sacrifice your 1-1 time with your direct reports. They need you — you should never be the roadblock. We all just want to be heard.
Resulting Attribute: Vision
“When we look back on our careers and our lives, would we rather see a long laundry list of “accomplishments” that don’t really matter or just a few major accomplishments that have real meaning and significance?” ― Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
In order to get people to follow, you have to show them where they’re going. This strategy isn’t telling, it’s leading your team to think big. People want to be led where their time is most valuable, and when they’re working on things that they believe are driving value for the company, they’ll hopefully feel fulfilled.
It’s important not to settle in this vision, which takes courage. Inspiration and vision go hand-in-hand: If the goal is 10, ask your team how to get to 20. If you help people see what that success looks like at the end — creating curiosity without defining the middle — that empowers the team to work towards something much bigger.
I’ve read (and seen) that most companies have plenty of great ideas. The issue is prioritizing and executing on them. When you focus on the opportunities, rather than the problems, that becomes building as opposed to fixing
Having a vision allows you to know what obstacles to clear along the path for your team. This may require setting a strategy that leads to organizational change, require alignment among stakeholders (a single vision is much more important than multiple ones) and be forced to make tough choices, yet do so decisively
Even the best decisions have a chance of being wrong. Through enabling your team to act on a confident vision, the odds of success will increase.
In a 2016 HBR study, the Top 10 leadership competencies were:
1. 67% High ethical and moral standards
2. 59% Provides goals and objectives with loose guidelines
3. 56% Clearly communicates expectations
The latter two represent someone leading with vision but getting out of the way to let the team make the decisions about how to get there.
A senior executive at a high-profile tech company once told me, “strategy happens here top down, but innovation happens bottom up.”
Leadership is a privilege, one that must not be taken as a job but a responsibility. It’s not about you. It about the people.
If you recognize this and put in the effort to become a great leader, many people will benefit, including yourself. This will not be an easy task, nor will it always go smoothly, but the fact that you’re putting in the effort puts you well ahead of many other “people leaders.”I’d love to hear your thoughts about leadership. Do you think there are certain traits that are more important than others? What qualities have the best leaders you’ve known displayed? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.