Monday, August 30, 2010

What Makes a Good Leader?

A week ago, while watching a video on leadership, the presenter said something that I've been thinking about ever since. He said, "In order to be a good leader, you have to learn how to handle yourself before you can handle others." To me, this is profound. To me, the number one trait of a good leader is that he or she acts in a way that earns the trust and respect of the people they lead. The respect of your subordinates is not something that automatically comes with the job title of manager, director, vice president or CEO. It is something that must be earned and then maintained. Without respect, a leader cannot accomplish anything.

How does one gain the respect of others? I look back on my experiences with various managers I have worked for and with over the years and the one thing that pops out for me is that the people I respected the most were the people who treated me with respect. These managers hired me to do a job and trusted their judgment and my skills enough to let me do it. They didn't micromanage me, and second-guess my every move. Instead, they stood back and let me go, monitoring my successes, and my mistakes, along the way. They viewed mistakes as a way to advance learning so instead of reprimanding me for the goofs I made, they used each opportunity as a chance to coach me to greater success. And they acknowledged the achievements that I made.

My best managers were people who truly valued my opinions and ideas. They listened carefully to what I had to say and took my comments into consideration when making decisions. I didn't get my way all the time - far from it - but with the leaders that I admire, I always felt as though my thoughts and expertise were taken into account. I felt as though I was a valued part of the organization instead of just a cog in the wheel. I mattered.

Being respected isn't the same as being friends with those you lead. I think that there always has to be a fine line that shouldn't be crossed. You can be friendly with those you manage but you should, at the same time, maintain a certain distance so that you can view each situation, and each person, objectively. This doesn't mean that a leader can't care for the people they lead, but they must still remain objective.

Finally, I always knew that the great managers I worked with would stand up for me when the need arose. I remember one time, at the beginning of my working career, when I managed to make the VP of the organization I worked for very angry because I wouldn't let him use the copier I was using (I had 1000 copies of a 5 page newsletter to make and 4 hours of overtime on a finiky copier...need I say more?!) Although my manager at the time - a wonderful man named Walter Winborn - could have thrown me to the wolves, he didn't. Because I left him a note before I left, letting him know about the situation, he stood up for me. He was like that. And, in return for his support, I would have given him the shirt off my back if I could. He had earned my loyalty, not through demands but through treating me like a valued human being.

This week, reflect on what kind of leader you are. Would your employees stand up for you if the going got tough? What can you do this week to improve your relationship with the people you lead? The answer starts with you.