The 3 Foundational Roles of Successful Leaders

In Good Boss, Bad Boss, I came across this definition of what it means to be a leader:

A boss’s job is “to eliminate people’s excuses for failure.”

The author, Robert Sutton, went on to distinguish two aspects of a leader. The first aspect is to manage and oversee performance meaning are you doing everything possible so your people can do great work? The second aspect involves humanity. Are you helping your people “experience dignity and pride” in their work?

If you Google “definition of leadership,” you’ll get over 500 million results, each highlighting a different aspect of what it means to be a leader. Some keep it short and sweet in a single sentence. Others list out 10 commandments leaders should follow.

I believe the true definition of leadership is a personal one, and it’s unique to each individual person.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the same conversation with multiple people. In those conversations, I defined the three characteristics I believe make up a good leader so I wanted to share them here.

My personal definition of leadership is that it involves three pieces:

  1. Setting the vision for where your team is headed.
  2. Providing actionable feedback to help them get there.
  3. Developing your people by connecting them with opportunities for growth.

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The Toxic Tandem in Leadership

“Followers look a the leader; the opposite does not happen as regularly or intensely.”

The above is from Good Boss, Bad Boss. It’s a quote by anthropologists that study group dynamics among chimpanzees, gorillas, and baboons. These species are unique in that they have a set power structure. They have alpha males and leaders among their ranks.

Anthropologists studying these groups noticed something unique:

Studies of baboon troops show that a typical member glances at the alpha male every twenty or thirty seconds.

Followers revere the leader of their group, assembling cues on how they should think, feel, and act. Psychologist Susan Fiske elaborates on why this might be the case:

In an effort to predict and possibly influence what is going to happen to them, people gather information about those with power.

This makes sense. If someone has even a small stake in your future, it’s in your best interest to understand how they think and respond in specific situations.

This wouldn’t be a problem if leaders were always conscious it was happening and acted accordingly. But, that’s not always the case. There’s plenty of evidence that power warps the awareness, thoughts, and attitudes of those that have it*.

The overarching themes are laid out in Good Boss, Bad Boss. Leaders tend to:

  1. become more focused on their own needs and wants
  2. become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions
  3. act as if written and unwritten rules others are expected to follow don’t apply to them

The “toxic tandem” is this: Leaders are under intense scrutiny from those around them yet their position often results in self-serving behavior.

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