"5 Signs You Are a Better Leader Than You Think"
Erin Urban, LSSBB, CPDC, PMI Houston Contributor
“I want to make sure I’m a great leader,” my client Susan shared with me. “I’m worried that I might be missing something and I would be devastated if I allowed a gap to hurt my team’s performance.” This conversation is not at all surprising. As an executive coach, I work with driven experienced professionals that want to elevate their careers and guess what … leaders are just like anyone else! Just because you are in a management role, that does not exempt you from having doubts and fears. The good news is, you are probably a better leader than you think.
Some psychologists call the fear that you aren’t measuring up to your role ‘imposter syndrome’ – I call it: just being human. What is heart-warming about my conversation with Susan: she really cares about her team. Being a great leader not only helps you rise, but it also helps your team be more productive and effective at their jobs. If you are a great leader, you also desire to develop your team and support them in their growth.
If you are wondering whether or not you ‘make the grade’ as a leader, I’ve compiled a few top habits of successful leaders that develop high-performance teams and deliver results. These are the core habits that can be adopted on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to skyrocket your leadership career:
1. You establish regular feedback loops
Any professional wanting to elevate their career benefits from regular feedback loops not only with their management but also their team. To have the most powerful impact, feedback comes from 360-degrees to help you uncover your blind spots and develop yourself professionally. I can personally attest that feedback, if leveraged wisely (and delivered well), can transform your career trajectory for the better!
Great feedback loops fall under several categories to be the most useful to a great leader: (1) feedback for self and (2) feedback for others – such as your team. Here’s what that might look like for you:
- You set up regular reviews and personal development meetings with your management, a mentor or a coach to obtain feedback and get the most traction in your career.
- You solicit feedback from your direct report or colleagues (or both!) to get a 360-degree view of your leadership style and where you can adjust to make improvements.
- You deliver timely, well-thought-out, and appropriate feedback to your direct reports in 1:1 meetings with them for their development. If you are not yet managing others, perhaps you provide sensitive, yet candid feedback to your colleagues or those you influence – if welcomed or requested.
- Top feedback fails I see are: delivering feedback in front of others, when it isn’t asked for, or when you are in an emotionally charged situation. If the feedback is critical in any way, be sensitive to the person receiving it. Unless you are their direct manager, you may not be the right person to deliver feedback. While, if delivered properly, feedback can be an amazing tool – it is not something you should take lightly.
- If you find it necessary to give critical feedback to a direct report, I recommend giving them time to process the feedback. If feedback challenges a person’s self-identity – they may become defensive (this is natural) and they will need time to adjust. Specific examples and the use of reflective inquiry helps feedback recipients to process and adapt more quickly verses and ‘dump and run’ method without any explanation.
2. You consider other people when communicating
Most people tend to communicate from the inside out (from habit) and that is backward. In order to communicate effectively, it’s best to keep the other person in mind. If you deliver your information in a way that is misaligned with the other person’s information receiving style – you may have just wasted your time. Effective communication is when information is actually exchanged and understood – here are a few guidelines:
- Communicate with others in mind. Consider how others might receive your tone of voice, word choice, and phrasing. Too often we speak from “habit.” Be intentional about your message.
- Shift from definitive language to more collaborative language to encourage other people to be more receptive. Be cautious of phrases like “you/we will,” “you/we should” or “you/we need to.” Instead, use phrases like “I’d like your thoughts on…” or “What do you think about…?”
- Practice being the last to speak. Not only does that allow you to absorb other’s ideas, but you are better able to present your thoughts in a collaborative manner that incorporates and respects others’ ideas.
- Listen, listen and listen some more. Listen longer than you would naturally. Ask clarifying, caring and thought-provoking questions. Listen with attention to what the other person is saying – not impatiently waiting for them to stop talking so you can jump in!
As a leader (or someone who desires a leadership role): communication is critical. You probably already know this and you might also think that either (a) you do a fine job already or (b) it’s really tough to nail down! If you think you do a great job of communicating and don’t feel like you have any adjustments to make, you might want to check yourself before you wreck yourself. The problem is, we develop habits over time. Habits of thinking, behaving and communicating. Fortunately, some of these habits aren’t an issue – but I have yet to see anyone who had communication nailed down (including myself).
Do you have habits that are no longer serving you? In order to make sure that you aren’t missing the mark on communication, ask for feedback as outlined in #1. You will probably get valuable insights into where you can tweak your style to be more effective. For example: when I was a young professional – I felt that everyone should think, behave, and act as I did. This was mostly due to ignorance on my part. I received a very strong wakeup call after receiving feedback that I was too abrupt and not ‘friendly’ enough. As a result, I adjusted my communication style with those that I knew appreciated more of a personal touch with outstanding results. In fact, there are a few habits I’ve developed with everyone I communicate with – such as thanking people. You will be amazed at how something so small, yet significant can make such a positive impact!
3. You acknowledge others and celebrate them
If there is one universal law that I have seen clearly demonstration time and time again: you get what you give. If you are negative, focus on all the gaps, and only see the worst in people – that is the world you perpetuate. On the other hand, if you are giving, see the best in people despite faults, and see opportunities through challenges – that is the world you develop for yourself. You get what you give, it’s really that simple. As a leader, when you acknowledge others and celebrate them (I don’t mean throw a party every day) – it compounds your trustworthiness as a professional. Not only do people like you more; they are also more willing to collaborate, work for, and be inspired by you.
Think of it this way: how likely are you to go the ‘extra mile’ for someone who is negative and unappreciative? Probably not likely. The more you lift others up and support them – the more they lift you up and support you. It’s a reciprocal process. Chances are, you are well on this path if you are focused on the following:
- Recognizing others for their valuable contributions while showing appreciation and giving as many genuine, specific “thank yous” (or kudos) as possible.
- Showing that you care by random acts of kindness. You are adopting a pay-it-forward mindset while respectfully guarding your boundaries.
- You always acknowledge your team’s hard work in addition to your own contributions – knowing that one person can only achieve but so much.
- You encourage others to share their thoughts and ideas on a topic without having to ‘qualify’ their statements with your own opinion of the idea or bias.
- You ask questions of experts in their field and show respect for their knowledge by acknowledging the source when appropriate and timely to do so.
Smart leaders know that they achieve greatness by the strength of their teams. In addition, they are also keenly aware that there is a balance between giving the ownership for success to the team and expressing your own contributions. It’s important to be clear what you contributed as well as show acknowledgment if you want to elevate your career.
4. You realized leadership has little to do with being an ‘expert’
One of the biggest mistakes I see well-meaning professionals make is expecting the leader to also be the expert. Leadership has less to do with your technical expertise and more to do with your interpersonal skills. You can be a fantastic individual contributor, but you may not have what it takes to manage people or think strategically.
Being a great leader does not mean that you have to be an expert. This is a trap that quite a few hard-working driven professionals fall into. They try to be the subject matter expert and ignore the more important skills of effective people management. Almost every time I work with a client who is more technically focused, they are convinced that the path forward is to be the absolute best at what they do. The role of the leader is to manage the subject matter experts – not be one! Here’s what that might look like for you:
- Practice authenticity daily. No one is expected to know everything. Saying “I don’t know, but I can find out” is sometimes the wisest course of action. Admitting mistakes is also essential for maintaining your credibility.
- Get to know people’s skills, expertise, and who they are. Get to know not only what they are great at, but what their hopes, dreams, and desires are. This is essential for building relationships and being able to manage your resources wisely.
- Build a robust network of subject matter experts and call on their expertise when needed. Provide training with these individuals for your team’s skill development. Encourage knowledge sharing within your team so they are not relying on you to ‘have all the answers’.
- The challenge with fighting this expectation is that so many managers are where they are because they were either good at their jobs (what they did) or they had been there the longest. That is NOT a good reason to promote anyone!! What happens in the vast majority of cases: you lose a subject matter expert and gain a bad manager. Everyone has the capability to lead AND not everyone should be in leadership.
Having the capability to lead and being a great leader are two very different things. You are a great leader if you realized that your ability to manage people, resources, and think strategically comes first. Many technically adept professionals cannot make this mindset shift and leap into leadership without intensive training, education, and coaching.
5. You empower & develop your team with a coaching mindset
I find that empowerment is often only vaguely understood by leaders at any level. Empowerment is not a phony engagement program that consists of half-hearted attempts by upper management to pacify their teams. It is also not solely about ‘team-building’ events that over half of your team probably hates.
Suggestion boxes, having an ‘open-door’ policy, or even encouraging professional development groups internally do not fully resonate with the spirit of empowerment to develop your team. In fact, the signs you empower and develop your team may surprise you…
- You have no qualms delegating work to those qualified to do it and you are equally accepting that the work may not be perfect.
- You show restraint when you get the impulse to ‘dive in’ and tweak or otherwise perfect any work that your team (or others) do. Instead, you ask yourself: “How much of a difference will I make, and is it truly necessary?”
- You know that empowerment is allowing your team (and others) to solve problems at their level while collaborating with them on challenges, as appropriate, for their development.
Instead of ‘telling’ – you use a coaching mindset to ask questions so others arrive at conclusions themselves.
- You embrace the power of ‘lessons learned’ during debriefs and celebrate those who openly admit mistakes and share ideas on how to improve.
If you desire to empower and develop your team – delegate wisely and more often. When you allow your teams to solve problems at their level, you are unspokenly demonstrating that you trust them. You are also enabling your role to shift from ‘managing’ to leading with a coaching mindset. This also sets you up very well to be able to move into senior leadership roles. By encouraging and developing an environment where people feel safe to make decisions inside their control, it has a host of healthy benefits. Not only does your team feel like they are trusted by you and they can demonstrate their capabilities, they are also getting the opportunity to develop themselves.
This leadership style is not to be mistaken as a laissez-faire, hands-off approach where you provide no guidance and little direction to your team. A laissez-faire method creates stress, tension, and toxic team environments just as quickly as if you were micro-managing them. Think of ideal leadership as guiding – not steering.
For managers who struggle to let go and still feel the need to swoop in and dictate the details, you are only hurting your team’s ability to perform at their highest level. Rule of thumb: if someone can do it +80% as well as you can – delegate it. If you don’t, you are also building a dependency on your constant guidance. Your team is less likely to be as efficient because they figure that you will dive in and put your ‘stamp’ on whatever-it-is anyway, so they don’t bother to do excellent work.
Signs You Are a Better Leader Than You Think
Being a great leader is fairly straightforward. What gets us turned around and off-track is when we try to complicate it, be perfect, be the expert, be right, let our insecurities take over, or think that we’re better than everyone else. Effective leadership isn’t necessarily all about YOU and how awesome you are. Leaders exist to support their teams so they can perform at the highest level.
If you think you are leading but no one is following – you are just taking a walk.
Most people answer: “influence” without hesitation when I ask them what they believe leadership is all about. The problem is, when I start asking them what they think influence is – I get answers that are counter to what actually creates influence with others, which starts with your credibility. Credibility has its roots firmly in building trust. In order to build trust, you must be someone who has good character.
Being a great leader starts with your mindset. Throw away the outdated myths that being an expert in your field has anything to do with whether you can lead people! If you can do this, you might be a better leader than you think. As the leadership expert, John Maxwell says, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Erin Urban (LSSBB, CPDC), I’m a member of the Forbes Coaches Council, a keynote speaker, certified career growth and an executive leadership development coach with almost a decade of mentoring and coaching successful professional transformations. Find her at https://uppsolutions.net.