It's an admirable thing to want to become a better leader. Too many rest on their laurels, or assume the way they've always done things is the way they'll continue to do things.
Of course, there are a gazillion books and tomes on the topic, some good, some not so good, and some downright ugly. But from where I'm sitting, there are five clear strategies for being a better leader. Engage with these, explore them and experiment with them, and you'll continue to evolve and become a better leader.
1. Listen better
I know the times I've been a better leader are when I've heard what someone in my team has been saying, whether I wanted to hear it or not, and acted on it.
But it's not always been the case. Sometimes I've thought that I needed to call all the shots and know what's what, and missed out on hearing what was there to be heard. Not only is that demotivating for the person who isn't being heard, but the team, project, product, brand and probably the customer or user misses out too.
There's richness in people. And really listening to people is how you tap into that richness. Hear what they're saying. Hear what they're not saying. Ask them questions. And listen to their answers.
You don't have to use every opinion or execute every suggestion, of course not. But hearing what's there to be heard:
- let's them know they're valued
- let's them know they can contribute
- offers insight into what's really happening
- makes you better placed to make a good decision
- helps to bring people with you
Listening is free. And it's golden.
2. Delegate better
If you look up delegate in the dictionary, it says:
entrust (a task or responsibility) to another person
And it's this definition that gives us a huge clue about how to delegate better.
I used to think that I had to know exactly what task to give every team member in order to achieve what we were working towards. When someone finished a task, I'd have to give them another task. Then another. Then another. Rinse and repeat.
But this task-based delegation gives no room for autonomy, mastery or purpose in an individual. It takes away all agency, and robs the team of any ability to innovate, flex or adapt. It's execute-only.
Instead, delegate responsibilities to people and to teams, leaving room for them to self-organise, to solve problems and to innovate to achieve great work.
Barking orders at people might have worked in a 1970's factory, but better leadership (and better outcomes) require better delegation.
3. Prioritise better
Prioritisation is the lifeblood of a leader. Every day you have to make a hundred tiny choices, and sometimes a few big ones, about what matters and what rises to the top.
Every project or organisation will have different drivers for prioritising, but what often gets missed (in pursuit of revenue, or fame, or ego) is what truly matters.
I've been in an organisation where we said no to a project in Saudi Arabia, simply on ethical grounds. When I've picked up projects that weren't on track, I've prioritised honesty and transparency with brand clients over the bluff and obfuscation that I was encouraged to prioritise. And I've prioritised creating a healthy working environment over cracking the whip every single time.
Consistently prioritise doing the right thing. Consistently prioritise respecting the team (their time and their capability). Consistently prioritise the values that truly matter to you (and have an understanding of what matters to your team).
Do that, and you'll be a better leader.
4. Engage better
Remember the movie City Slickers? Billy Crystal plays a tired jingle writer, someone who's just calling it in day after day, and someone who (in his own words) feels like he's lost his smile.
So he goes off on his cow-wrangling, horse-riding adventure, and through facing all those challenges and reconnecting with what matters to him, he learns what he needs to learn.
When he returns home, with a smile on his face from ear to ear, he says:
I'm not going to quit my job. I'm just going to do it better. I'm going to do everything better.
I think we've all been down there, in that place where it all feels like a struggle, and where we just want things to be different. And experiencing struggle is easy, because there will always be things that don't go your way, and there will always be the urge towards safety, even if that safety takes you to a place you never wanted to be.
So like Billy Crystal's character, the answer is to engage differently. To engage better.
Don't compartmentalise yourself, but bring your whole self to what you're doing. Stop focusing on how much of a struggle it feels, and start connecting with the work in more meaningful ways. Resist the urge to hold back because you want to make sure you'll be safe or have a get-out, and throw yourself in and start playing.
When you think about it, aren't the best leaders the ones who engage with everything they've got?
5. Know yourself better
Being a better leader is impossible if you ignore what's happening in that wonderful noggin of yours.
Swimming around in there are things like the urge to please people. The need to prove yourself. The unrealistic pursuit of perfection. Fears of screwing up or looking dumb in front of everyone. Second-guessing your decisions because you want to be sure you're making the right choice. And so, so much more.
Knowing yourself better is really about being self-aware—shining a light on some of your thinking, seeing what might not be serving you well, and making some choices about how to do things differently.
If you don't do this work, then you're not only doing yourself a huge disservice, but you'll be getting in your own way as a leader and doing your team, organisation and customers a disservice.
Being willing to look at yourself first is the spirit of better leadership.
Which brings us to confidence...
All of these strategies require practice. And that practice is made simpler with confidence—the ability to trust yourself, above all else.
Confidence is the vehicle for better leadership. It greases the wheels. It makes it okay to be uncomfortable. It allows you to flex and change even when it feels risky. It knows you're already whole and valuable and enough. It helps you engage with what matters without worrying what people might think. It allows you to show up as you already are, without pretence or self-protection.
So I think when you get down to it, a confident leader is a better leader.