This week’s professional development challenge
Guess why this is the case? Yep, bad bosses are one of the biggest causes.
Survey after survey shows that 65%–75% of the employees in any given organization report that the worst aspect of their job is their immediate boss. Estimates of management incompetence in the corporate world range from 30% to 75%.
Unfortunately, bad leaders are often unaware of their failings. In fact, many of them believe that they are doing a fantastic job!
This is due to the Dunning–Kruger effect, in which…
“poor performers in many social and intellectual domains seem largely unaware of just how deficient their expertise is. Their deficits leave them with a double burden — not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes but those exact same deficits also prevent them from recognizing when they are making mistakes and other people choosing more wisely.” — source
My own experience matches these estimates. I’ve worked with only a few truly terrible leaders, but a surprisingly larger number were incompetent in one or more aspects of leadership.
They were incapable of inspiring others.
They didn’t provide feedback or constructive criticism.
They leaned on their authority and threats to get things done.
They had rocky relationships with other colleagues.
They drove good people out of the organization.
However, I have been lucky enough to work with some truly amazing leaders too. I learned a lot from them. I observed how great leaders carry themselves.
I saw how they treated their teams. I watched how they presented in meetings and handled questions. They were able to get amazing results by inspiring us to believe in something meaningful.
If you currently lead a team, you may wonder if you have what it takes to become a great leader yourself.
The fact that you are asking that question — and reading this — shows that you are self-aware and have a willingness to learn and grow as a leader. That’s the first clue that you probably have what it takes.
Here are ten more clues, beliefs, and behaviors that separate the great leaders from the bad ones.
1. You believe in your team
This is the most important point, and it can’t be faked; a great leader believes in people. You can tell when someone truly believes in you, supports you, and values you. When you follow a leader like that, you know how awesome that feels.
Great leaders have hired carefully. They invest in their team daily and take the time to develop them. They’ve done everything they can to set them up for success. And they feel proud.
They believe in what their team can accomplish. They trust their team and support them. Believe me; people can tell when this is genuine. And they recognize when a leader doesn’t believe in them, and that makes work feel miserable.
2. You can still roll up your sleeves
Great leaders are typically promoted from within the ranks. They worked damn hard and were good at their job. That’s why they moved up.
Most importantly, a great leader can still do the work. If their help is needed, they jump right in.
I once remember a VP saying, in the middle of an office move, “Hey, I didn’t make it to VP so that I could move boxes around.” Everyone was chipping in to help make it happen more quickly, except this guy. He thought he was above such menial labor.
Great leaders aren’t lazy, and they don’t act like they are above it all. They don’t hyper-delegate so much that they appear afraid to do any hard work.
As a boss, I felt like it was my duty to take care of the tasks that might distract my team. I wanted to eliminate roadblocks that might derail them. I found office space. I found desks, chairs, and other furniture and literally moved it all into the office myself. I took care of the coffee and office supplies.
I met with the accountant and our lawyer. I paid the bills and planned our trips to meet with each other every month. I took care of a host of annoying tasks so that the team could stay focused on their work.
If you want to be a leader, you do what it takes to let your team stay on task. You aren’t afraid of getting your hands dirty.
3. You hire people who are smarter than you
Great leaders believe in hiring people who are smarter than they are. They don’t feel threatened by that. In fact, they actually seek it out. Hiring that way is what’s best for their team and the company.
“I hire people brighter than me and I get out of their way.” — Lee Iacocca
Why would you want to build a team of people who are less capable than you are? That’s a recipe for disaster.
Yet, that is exactly what weak managers and leaders do. They want to be the smartest person in the room.
Great leaders relish being around brilliant people. They love learning from them. They seek out their advice. They trust their judgment.
4. You hire people who are more talented than you are
Likewise, great leaders believe in hiring people who are more talented than they are in their chosen profession (e.g., Engineering leaders hire people who are better engineers than they are). Again, they don’t feel threatened by this. They are actually delighted to find and persuade the most talented people to join their team.
“I noticed that the dynamic range between what an average person could accomplish and what the best person could accomplish was 50 or 100 to 1. Given that, you’re well advised to go after the cream of the cream. A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.” — Steve Jobs
I’ve always found it strange that bad leaders are threatened by talent. They feel the need to prove themselves somehow and show that they are still the best in the office (e.g., “I’m still the best damn lawyer in this firm, and you had better recognize that”).
It’s kind of bizarre. I mean, do you watch a football game and think to yourself, “Wow. That coach on the sidelines is probably the best quarterback, running back, and wide receiver on the team all rolled up into one person. I sure do wish they could put him in the game!”
If you want to be a great leader, you recognize that your role has changed. You dream of having amazing people on your team. You want employees who are much more talented than you are.
5. You hire people who are different than you
Great leaders believe in hiring people who are not like them. They don’t try to staff their team with people exactly like their friends either. They know that a homogenous team is less likely to be effective and successful.
A diverse team will feel less comfortable than working with people who think and act similarly to you. That’s the point, though.
Homogenous teams may feel easier, but that ends up being bad for performance. Diversity creates friction, and that produces better outcomes because it is harder.
A great leader wants people to ask tough questions and challenge each other, including challenging the big boss. You want people who approach problem-solving from very different perspectives. Diversity in your team will spark creativity.
“…a 2009 analysis of 506 companies found that firms with more racial or gender diversity had more sales revenue, more customers, and greater profits. A 2016 analysis of more than 20,000 firms in 91 countries found that companies with more female executives were more profitable. In a 2011 study management teams exhibiting a wider range of educational and work backgrounds produced more-innovative products.” — Source
6. You hire people who think differently, too
Great leaders believe in cognitive diversity, as well. They know that you need people who think differently to come up with the most creative and innovative solutions.
If everyone on your team has an MBA from Stanford, you may think that would be a great thing. But, instead, you now have a team that most likely approaches problems and solutions in a very similar manner.
Cognitive diversity is harder to identify since it lies in how people think, not their gender, ethnicity, or age. But, you can pursue it if you intentionally hire and nurture people who don’t fit the definition of a “typical employee.” It would help if you also didn’t staff your team 100% with candidates from a specific set of schools with specific degrees.
It’s tempting to go overboard and say, “Well, then I’m going to bias for innovation and staff up my team with wild, crazy, and creative people who will shake things up!”
However, a great leader knows that won’t result in cognitive diversity either. You want to hire a mix of people who think and solve problems from different perspectives and are motivated by different types of outcomes.
Some people are innovators with creative ideas flowing constantly.
Some are disruptors and want to tear things down to build something better.
Some people get excited about optimizing existing systems.
Others are happy to maintain things and keep them running well.
You need all of these types of employees. You want a wide range of diverse people to create a great team that can tackle anything.
7. You develop people
Great leaders believe in developing talent within their organization. They provide access to ongoing training and education.
They know that people don’t just join companies for a paycheck. They want to grow and get better at what they do.
It frustrates me when a client tells me that their manager and company won’t invest in their development. When they ask, the manager says something along the lines of, “Sorry, we don’t have a budget for that. But, we are paying you well, so you can sign up on your own for training or conferences.”
On average, the costs to replace an employee are estimated to be 33% of their annual salary. In the U.S., the median wage for workers is $49,764 per year, which puts the average cost of turnover per employee at more than $16K. In comparison, the average annual expenditure for training and developing an employee is about $1,000.
It doesn’t seem very smart to ignore your existing employees’ development, let them get frustrated and quit, and shrug your shoulders and say, “No problem, we’ll just hire someone new.”
Great leaders know that talented existing employees add immeasurable value to the organization and company (e.g., focused experiences, specific skills, inside knowledge, a positive culture, etc.). They develop their people to help them grow in their careers.
8. You have created career paths within your organization
Speaking of careers, great leaders believe in providing employees with a real career path inside the company and invest in their career development. You should provide learning and development opportunities, but that alone won’t help you retain great employees if they don’t have a clear promotion path inside your organization and company.
Again, I’m surprised by the number of times I hear that a company hasn’t defined the career path for different roles (e.g., How does an engineer get promoted and move up here?). Or, the specific job levels stop at a certain point, and management waves their hands when asked, “Ok, I see that I can become a Lead Designer here. But what happens after that?”
Great leaders take the time to map out all levels and the expectations for performance at each. They explain the promotion process and let their employees know where they stand. They create a plan for each employee to show them how they can grow and move up.
9. You promote from within
While it is not always possible, great leaders default to promoting talent within the organization and company vs. always hiring new leadership from the outside. It’s frustrating for employees to watch senior roles and management positions constantly being filled with new hires. They start to believe that there is no way to move up at the company, and they might be right.
A great leader has been investing in the team, developing people, creating clear career paths, and guiding employees in their development to be ready for promotions. There are no mysteries about what it means to exceed expectations for a given role and level. Timelines for promotions are discussed openly.
Of course, you can’t promote every single employee during every single performance review cycle. But, you can openly and honestly explain how the process works, set clear goals for everyone, share what the promotion allocation is (e.g., you can promote five people this cycle), and let everyone know how you will make your decisions.
10. You shield your team
Great bosses protect their team from the crap that sometimes comes down from above so that they can focus on doing their jobs. It’s the reality of working in any good-sized company. There will be chaos and turmoil. If you’ve worked long enough, you start to recognize when a storm will pass and when a real crisis occurs.
A great leader recognizes that difference and doesn’t whipsaw the team in response. They shield their team, let them stay on course, and wait for the dust to settle a bit. If something truly needs to be dealt with, they share the issue with their team, and changes are made.
Shielding your team also includes protecting them from other leaders in the company when necessary. Inevitably, they will encounter other leaders who are not so constructive with their criticism.
I’ve literally heard an exec say, “This looks like crap, and your people must be idiots.” Nice, huh?
A great leader can hear nasty feedback like that and knows how to handle the situation calmly. They know how to dig deeper to get to the real essence of the issues. They know that they should be the ones to communicate feedback and guidance in a more constructive manner vs. demoralizing the team.
I’ve even gone so far as to block an exec from giving feedback directly to my team members because it was so destructive. I told one person, “All feedback goes through me from now on, OK? Don’t hunt my people down and attack them. It’s harmful, and it’s not getting the results you want anyway.”
Bonus: You are why they come to work every day
Great leaders change the workplace for the better. They show you how you are contributing to something greater than yourself. They make you feel like you matter.
When they are around, everything feels like it will be OK. There was always one more clue that I was working for a great leader:
I was glad that they were in the office.
When I was working for a bad boss, there was an immense feeling of relief when they were out of the office. We were all happy when they went on vacation. Things ran more smoothly. The stress levels noticeably dropped.
It was almost the inverse when I worked for great leaders. We were worried when they went on vacation. We wanted them around.
Great leaders are made, not born
Many good managers have the potential to become a great leader. While every aspect of great leadership doesn’t come naturally to everyone, they can be learned and practiced over time. You can also seek out coaches and advisors who will help you develop those skills and grow.
“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born — that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” — Warren G. Bennis
You need to be self-aware, seek feedback, welcome constructive criticism, and commit to getting a little better every day. If you are lucky, your leadership development can start within your existing organization if you already work for a great leader.
It would help if you also took note of the great leaders in your industry and profession. You can observe and learn from them, as well.
Some people will even deliberately seek out a new job where they can work for such a leader. Working for a great leader can have a huge impact on your career trajectory.
I know that many of my stories tend to run long, so you clearly care about becoming a better leader if you’ve made it all the way to the end. That’s another good sign, and your organization is lucky to have you.
Good luck with your continuing leadership development!
Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, a Great Dane, and an adopted rabbit. He does his best to share advice that can help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter and Instagram @cornett