We’re all familiar with great leaders. We read articles about them, buy their products, and obsessively analyze their behavior for clues about how we can channel some of their success. Anyone with dreams of leadership naturally wants to be the best leader they can be, which has given rise to many theories about how to lead well. A leader does these things, a leader displays these personality traits, a leader must be focused on this topic, a leader is born rather than made—it’s a lot to take in. Above all, the position demands that a leader be effective, but that becomes a rather complicated concept upon closer examination.
When you distill down the wealth of information available, it appears that the behavior of effective leaders can be broken down into three major areas: what environment they create for their reports, which values they portray in their interactions with others, and how they relate to themselves.
Four major voices in the leadership analysis conversation came together in 2014 to write a book called, “Collective Genius,” which explores how to lead innovative teams. When one of the authors, former Pixar executive Greg Brandeau, discusses leadership he emphasizes the environment a leader creates more than anything else. The right environment, he argues, allows people to communicate authentically, be in the creative flow of their work, and come up with innovative solutions. Neurology backs this up: In times where people are anxious or afraid the human brain inhibits our ability to be socially engaged. Our creativity gets blunted, along with problem solving and communication skills. In short, without a good emotional work environment, no one can be physiologically able to perform at their best.
Leaders are responsible for setting the tone and environment for their subordinates. People need to feel like a leader is maintaining a safe space for them to do their best work and grow through calculated risk-taking. An effective leader can do this by advocating upwards in their team’s best interest to secure the resources they need to do their job well, showcasing their work, and providing an appropriate level of protection if mistakes get made. Effective leaders also create a culture downwards that promotes effective values and enforces positive norms of behavior.
The way in which an effective leader interacts with their reports is the mechanism by which they create and maintain the safe environment mentioned above. When Harvard Business Review asked 195 global leaders to rate 74 leadership qualities, the top one was “Has high ethical and moral standards,” with “Clearly communicates expectations” in the third spot. Taken together, this means effective leaders should exhibit moral, fair behavior and communicate that this is to maintain the best possible environment for everyone to move forward together. They should focus on challenges that arise in the course of work, not engaging in personal attacks or playing favorites. If there are doubts that they are behaving this way, they can address them head on by using language such as, “You’re not going to be blamed here, but we need to look at what went wrong.”
Allowing self-organization and personal autonomy are also positive ways for leaders to interact. People typically do well with clear direction and expectations, but beyond that they excel when they can structure their own time. No one likes to be micro-managed. An effective leader will have open, active communication with their reports and show an attentive listening style, while also showing trust by allowing enough space between interactions and backing off when necessary. Since they’re not involved in employees’ every move, the interactions they have are valuable and should be treated as such.
Many studies also advocate the importance of in-person interactions. The CEO of Procter & Gamble, A. G. Lafley, for example meets with everyone from direct reports to consumers face to face. For him, this means getting a complete picture of the organization and how products fare out in the world. Face time can be great, but since it can also be scarce, leaders need to be thoughtful about their interactions both in person and through all other mediums. If in-person interactions aren’t always possible, effective leaders still attempt to be authentic and personable in their digital communications, while inviting conversation and useful feedback.
A leader can easily work on all of these external, visible areas we’ve discussed, but the final important aspect of effective leadership is how they relate to themselves. The fact is, no two people will lead the same way, and truly effective leaders need to find their own style rooted in their authentic self. Many of the great leaders the media adores alienated people, or couldn’t work with everyone, but they still persevered to attain their goals. Because leaders won’t always please each person and will make mistakes, it is worthwhile to make sure that when disagreements and friction arise leaders are still acting in a way that is true to them.
Self-reflection and personal investment can be much more nuanced than working on communication or work habits. Effective leaders need to know their own values to make rapid judgement calls that they can commit to and be proud of. If they find themselves having a nagging sense of guilt or confusion, they likely need to take a step back and get re-acquainted with their own personal internal compass. Decisive, confident choices with strong follow-through are necessary for effective leadership, and arise when leaders relate well to themselves.
Effective leaders are bold, assertive, trustworthy and strive constantly to greater heights. By being rooted in themselves, communicating well, and creating a safe place to come to work they can inspire new things in the people around them.