How to become the best leader you can be

Dr. Clinton O. Longnecker

Wherever I travel, people talk about leadership, and many organizations are making it quite clear that they no longer want managers but leaders. A wide body of current research makes it clear that leadership can have a direct impact on a range of critically important performance variables. It can have a dramatic impact on an organization’s innovation and creativity, change and transformation, productivity and efficiency, employee turnover, job satisfaction, motivation, teamwork and cooperation, ethical culture, and communications climate.

People talk about authentic leadership, transformational leadership, transactional leadership, situational leadership, team-based leadership, behaviourally-based leadership, and we are just getting started. A great many industry-leading organizations are known for focusing attention and financial resources on leadership succession planning, development, assessment, coaching, appraisal, and mentoring.

When an entire enterprise is struggling, stakeholders are quick to say it needs a change of leadership at the top. Given the current uncertainty and increased competition in the global marketplace, it is easy to understand why leadership has taken centre stage in organizational life.

The Best Practices of the Best LeadersOver the past two decades, I've conducted an ongoing research program to identify the best practices of high-performance business leaders around the world. Most recently, focus group research with over 500 highly successful business leaders from a wide variety of North American service and manufacturing organizations explored the attributes and practices of great leaders from the perspective of followers.

Individual participants had to identify the best and most effective leader with whom they'd ever worked over their career and describe the specific factors that made them so great. Focus groups then repeated the process as a team and came up with a top-10 consensus list of the factors that made these leaders so effective. The goal was to better understand the best practices of the best leaders to create a simple benchmark for leadership development and improvement.

With this background, I ask you 10 questions to help you focus your thinking on the key findings that emerged on this "great leaders" research. Each question encourages you to think through your own approach to leading others and to see how you stack up against the leadership practices of the great leaders chronicled in this research exercise.

1. Are you mission and results-driven?
Study participants made it very clear that high-performance business leaders realize that the most important job of any leader is to create focus and a clear sense of purpose for their people, regardless of their level in the enterprise or the function they serve. This clear sense of mission creates an overarching sense of "this is who we are and where we are going”. This sets the stage for leaders and their teams to identify what they need to do to successfully accomplish this clearly focused mission. Focus groups were quick to point out that their best bosses possessed the ability to get their people to coalesce around an overarching vision, mission, and purpose, so that they could clearly stake out the desired results, outcomes, and goals to achieve for success. This act of creating a mission and vision that was known and understood by all had a powerful impact on getting everyone on the same page. The study participants believed that the very best leaders were all about getting things accomplished, delivering desired results, and adding value to their enterprises.

Irrefutable Leadership Principal: Leaders who create a clear sense of purpose and mission for their people set the stage for high performance.

2. Are you emotionally intelligent and connecting with your people in ways to create people power?
In many business circles, people mistakenly believe that results-driven or goal-oriented leaders somehow lose their concern for people. The study participants made it clear that their best leaders were not only very results oriented but also had outstanding emotional intelligence and great people skills. The best leaders were frequently described as caring, compassionate, empathetic, kind-hearted, concerned, and considerate. These great leaders had the ability to balance concern for task and getting things done with great concern for their people. Focus groups all mentioned that the best leaders know how to personally connect with the individuals they are responsible for leading in very effective and personal ways that create people power. And when leaders connect with their people in this fashion, commitment, communication, motivation, job satisfaction, and engagement all increase.

Irrefutable Leadership Principal: Fostering effective working relationships makes it easier for leaders to deliver superior performance.

3. Are you focused on continuously improving your leadership skill set to meet the changing demands of your workplace?
Study participants described great leaders as possessing the requisite skills and talents to effectively meet the ongoing demands and challenges of their job as a leader. The best leaders always know what they are doing; possess the people, technical, and thinking skills needed for the job; and leverage their experience and talent to the benefit of their people and operations. In addition, these leaders were also described as life-long learners, who constantly worked on their leadership game.

Irrefutable Leadership Principle: Great leaders develop their talents to elevate the game.

4. Do you take the time and effort to properly equip your people with the things they need to be successful?
The best leaders received a great deal of praise and attention by participants for their willingness to properly equip and prepare their people for success. Great leaders take the time to plan and effectively communicate those plans with their people so that everyone knows what is coming in to create ownership. These same leaders take the time and expend the necessary energy and resources to ensure their people are properly equipped with the tools, technology, and training they need to be successful. This practice sends a message that a leader understands what is required for success and is willing to take the necessary steps to prepare people for the upcoming challenges of achieving superior performance.

Irrefutable Leadership Principle: Employees must be ready for battle if the are to produce superior performance.

5. Do you demonstrate great character and principled leadership in your working relationships with each other, your employees, and stakeholders?
In our focus groups, the issues of a leader’s character, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, and being ethical all surfaced with great consistency and regularity. Our participants made it clear that the best leaders are trustworthy in that they demonstrate principled leadership in everything they do and that their word is golden (reliable/dependable). Trustworthy leadership is always a function of a leader’s competency — followers believe that the leader knows what they are doing — interacting with the leader’s character — followers believe that the leader has integrity. The best leaders were worthy of trust because of their character and daily interactions with their people and also because of their transparency.

Irrefutable Leadership Principle: Employees follow leaders they can trust.

6. Do you take great care in clarifying employee performance expectations to keep them properly aligned with the changing needs of your enterprise?
If the best leaders are mission and results driven, it is not surprising that they also make a practice of clarifying individual performance responsibilities and expectations. Participants gave their leaders great praise, and even adulation, for the modest act of letting them know exactly what was expected of them at any given time. The study revealed that the best leaders have highly developed skills in delegating, goal setting, and clarifying expectations, and they use these skills to keep their people mission and results driven.

Irrefutable Leadership Principle: Focused employees outperform those who are not.

7. Do you look for ways to make it easier for your people to get their work done and to be successful?
Interestingly, the best leaders have the habit of making it easier for their people to get their work done. This practice includes rapid problem solving, ongoing process improvement activity, effective and timely decision making, and quickly removing any performance barriers that get in the way of people doing their work. When employees are working hard to get things done and their boss seems to be working against them, a wide variety of negative things happen, including gross inefficiency, a loss of productivity, employee frustration and withdrawal, and even turnover if left unchecked. One focus group’s key finding clearly stated: “The best leaders use their power to help their people soar both individually and as a team.”

Irrefutable Leadership Principle: Continuous improvement is required if a leader truly wants better results.

8. Do you engage in activities that foster teamwork and cooperation?
Developing and maintaining teams in organizations can be a challenge for most of us. Yet the leaders described in this study were recognized for their prowess in knowing how to get others to come together and work as a team. Note that these leaders use their emotional intelligence and people skills to connect with their people not only individually but also collectively. Increased teamwork and cooperation is a key factor to accelerate change, better solve problems, enhance innovation, improve brainstorming, increase performance accountability, and improve workplace communications.

Irrefutable Leadership Principle: Nurturing teamwork accelerates performance improvement.

9. Do you make coaching and employee development a real priority?
The best leaders invest time, energy, and effort in helping the people who work for them reach their full potential. Previous research has told us that coaching is considered to be a critical leadership requirement, yet far too few managers invest adequate time in this practice. Our study tells that the best leaders take this practice very seriously. They provide ongoing, balanced, and timely feedback to the people who report to them; they seek out such development opportunities for their people as mentoring, cross-training, special assignments, and formal training/development programs.

Irrefutable Leadership Principle: Effective feedback drives performance improvement.

10. Do you work hard to connect the use your time and material resources to the results you are attempting to achieve?
The final top-10 focus group finding is that the best leaders work hard to make effective use of organizational resources, especially time. These leaders were given great credit for their stewardship of organizational resources on any number of counts. First, they were careful not to waste the most critical organizational resource: time. These leaders were praised for not wasting people’s time in meetings, on wasteful projects, outdated reports, endless e-mails, and other non-value-added activities that can quickly drain the energy and momentum out of any organization if not properly managed. Second, these leaders were given credit for marshalling and deploying resources to help their people get results. In the end, the idea of stewardship can be seen among any number of these findings as the best leaders try to manage their resources and deploy them in a mission-driven fashion that help their people deliver desired results in an efficient fashion.

Irrefutable Leadership Principle: Resources must be allocated to support your real mission.

By thoughtfully and actively responding to each of these questions, you too may someday be described as one of the best leaders your people have ever worked for over their career, if you are not already on that list. According to the participants in our study, your response to each of these questions is critically important if you are to be in a position to effectively deliver the results that your organization wants and needs from you as a leader. And remember, it is all about leadership, so learn and lead well.

Dr. Clinton O. Longnecker is an award-winning business educator, researcher, author, motivational speaker, business consultant, executive coach, and the Stranahan Professor of Leadership and Organizational Excellence at the University of Toledo. He specializes in rapid performance improvement and creating high-performance organizations in both his research and consulting. The Economist recently recognized him as one of the top 15 business professors in the world. He has published over 180 journal articles and co-authored the best-selling Getting Results: Five Absolutes for High Performance and Two Minute Drill: Lessons on Rapid Organizational Improvement from America’s Greatest Game. Contact him at [email protected].

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