10 things you need to do to be a brilliant leader

I’ve never been on a Leadership course so I just made it up as I went along and it worked out pretty well for me.

I never really wanted to be a ‘Leader’ but I wanted to get things done and I found out very quickly that you need to get other people to help you and so you need a team.

Of course, I didn’t get it right straight away and made plenty of mistakes but somehow, through a combination of luck and judgement, I found my own way to create and lead great teams, and that’s how you make stuff happen.

I’ve distilled what I learnt into 10 things you need to do to be a brilliant leader.

  1. Create a safe environment

It’s a sad fact that many people don’t feel safe at work. They fear speaking up and voicing their opinions and ideas because they will get ridiculed, judged, ignored or just plain bullied. They fear they will be shamed and rejected.

Now, you want these people to be creative and innovative; to take risks and experiment; to bring their best selves and to do their best work. But fear , shame and rejection are creativity killers. That’s why your job as a leader is to make them feel safe and able to make their unique contribution without any fear.

A Google study found that psychological safety is the No 1 trait of high performing teams, and by a long way. We do our best work when we are with people we trust and feel safe with.

You will have your own way of creating this environment and some of my other points will help with that but, ultimately, it’s down to you. This is leadership.

2. Make everyone a leader

The heroic leader who has all the answers and makes all the decision is dead. He got killed by unforeseen circumstances.

You don’t have the monopoly on knowledge and wisdom and you certainly aren’t an expert at everything you need to have happen. Chances are you are the most stupid, least talented person in the room (always a wise assumption to make, in any case). But it’s OK because you are surrounded by loads of talented people and the wisdom of the group, which you can tap into by ensuring people step up to lead when they are the best person to do so. Make sure that who is leading is determined by the situation and not by status or hierarchy (formal or informal) or, even worse, by ego.

I see leadership as a role that is passed around and shared and should always be moved closest to expertise and knowledge. It’s your job as ‘Leader’ to make sure that happens, even if it means, paradoxically, that you hardly ever lead in any given situation.

3. People first, always

Leadership is about people first, and then all that other stuff. So put people first, always.

I mean, it is just so bloody obvious isn’t it? But you wouldn’t think so, looking at the work environment today. Too many organisations treat the people as replaceable cogs and focus excessively on optimising processes, short-term efficiency and profit. Never mind if a few cogs get chewed up in the machine or a few teeth get knocked off, there’s a ready supply of replacements. People are just a disposable input to the business model.

People first isn’t just a trite slogan. It means caring, compassion and understanding. Taking an interest in their lives and focusing on their thriving. It’s about building deep relationships and having an open heart. It’s what Seth Godin calls emotional labour, hard and testing but deeply rewarding.

Treat the people you lead the way you would like to be treated (even if your leaders aren’t doing that for you). Do this and they will follow you anywhere. And you’re only a leader when they do.

4. Be first reserve

As I’ve already said, it’s about creating an environment where everyone can do their best stuff and so a lot of what I did was to be vigilant. When I spotted a gap or a shortcoming, then I would step in and fill it so that it didn’t undermine things.

Think of it like being the first reserve on a football team, ready to step in if someone gets injured, whatever position they happen to be in (well, the only reserve, most of the time!)

Now, I am a bit of a generalist so I could cover most things temporarily. OK, as a non-heading centre forward I was limited and I was a truly useless goalkeeper, but even then I was better than an empty space. At least everyone else could get on with their stuff whilst we found a replacement.

You have to be willing to roll your sleeves up and do whatever is necessary – even make the tea or do the data entry – to keep the team moving. The remarkable thing is that, when everyone sees you doing it, they start to do it too. Filling in the gaps becomes second nature and binds the team even closer together.

5. Challenge constantly and constructively

I’m a natural contrarian and devil’s advocate, so I am always asking why and challenging people. Mistakes often happen because people made an assumption or just allowed something to go through without question. Challenging their thinking and actions helps them get real clarity of thought and deed. It leads to better decisions, more focused activity, better performance and personal growth. It’s a really healthy thing to do.

However, it has always to be constructive and respectful. Challenge the argument, not the person making it. Your clear intention must be to improvement, not ‘winning’ or ‘being right’.

The aim here is to create a high-performance culture where everyone is striving to be their best and seeking constant improvement. In this culture, challenge is seen positively because it is helping people to perform at their best, rather than being interpreted negatively as criticism and fault-finding as is the case in so many workplaces.

6. Laugh a lot

Humour is massively important to a great team environment. Laughter helps us bond socially and loosens us up, making us more open and receptive to new ideas. It relaxes us and that really helps us access our creativity. 

It’s also incredibly good for our wellbeing, releasing all sorts of good hormones and chemicals. On top of that, it’s a good workout for bodies.

When a team is having fun then it attracts others who want to be part of that, which means you can get the best people to join you.

A sense of humour also helps in the hard times, releasing tension and lightening the mood.

So what’s not to like?

It has to be inclusive and respectful, however. A bit of banter is fine but it mustn’t be a cloak for bullying or cliquey-ness. it’s your job as leader to make clear where the boundaries are and encourage the team to call out behaviour that strays across the line.

7. Be humble

Remember what I told you that on Day 2? You are probably the most stupid and incapable person in the room. What have you got to be so proud of? 

Humility is a really important quality for leaders as it builds trust and creates an open environment.  Hearing you say “I don’t know” allows others to admit their shortcomings and knowledge gaps and to ask for help, rather than trying to bullshit and bluster their way through (which, frankly, never ends well, does it?). 

Remember, you are not successful on your own, you can only be successful if your team is successful. You are totally reliant upon them. If that doesn’t give you some humility then you shouldn’t be in a leadership position. 

8. Be vulnerable

It’s OK to say you are unsure, scared and frightened. It’s not a sign of weakness, is a sign of strength and of courage. 

It’s normal. Suppressing our emotions, as our culture often encourages us to, is not. In fact, it’s positively abnormal and dangerous.

Everyone has emotions and they affect our behaviour and our judgement, so it’s really important that we acknowledge and understand them. Besides, they give us valuable feedback about what’s going on.

If you are having a tough time, as we all do, then you need to explain what’s going on to your team or they will assume it’s their fault and that will cause all sorts of problems and kill team performance.

You are leading by example here and giving everyone in the team permission to be vulnerable too. This builds trust like you wouldn’t believe and will draw everyone together. It helps people deal with their emotions quickly before they get out of control and create problems. 

On the other side of vulnerability lies creativity. You simply can’t get there any other way.

9. Be generous

I always looked for the best in people and assumed they had the best motivations. That’s not how a lot of organisations are set up. Just look at the staff handbook as see what the underlying assumptions are – people are lazy, untrustworthy, and need constant supervision. That’s why its so big!

Very few people get up and think “Great, I’m going to go to work and do a really shit job today!”. They want to do something meaningful and fulfilling, to do the best they can and it’s your job to give them the chance.

I have always been amazed at the talents and abilities that people reveal when they are given that chance. They come up with stuff that is way better than anything I could have even imagined. 

You’re also modelling the behaviour of generosity, which they will then show to each other, adding to the trust and good will that is being built up. Thinking the best of each other demonstrates respect and leads to harmonious relationships, releasing another level of performance all round. 

10. Be courageous

Leadership is a courageous act. It’s about standing up for your opinions, values, purpose – on your own if necessary.

It about having the courage to be vulnerable and humble. Having the courage to open your heart and take the risk of making those deep connections. Having the courage to take on the cares and burdens of others and to ease their load.

It takes courage to say “I care”. 

If you care about something enough to want to make change happen, then you can be courageous, you can lead. We need you to do so.

That’s all that I did. I didn’t set out to be a leader, to be courageous or any of the rest of it. I just saw how things could be different and had to make it happen. I saw possibility and had to realise it. And you have possibility in you.

The title to this article is rather tongue in cheek – it’s for other to say if I I was a brilliant leader or not. But I believe that that the act of stepping up and saying ‘I care and I want to make this happen’ is a demonstration of brilliance.

You can be brilliant. Go and lead.

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