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.

Where are we headed? Leaders define the vision.

I’m convinced that much of the debate around “managers versus leaders” is mostly semantics, but if there is a difference, to me it’s this: Managers are responsible for holding individuals on their team accountable while leaders set the overall vision and direction for the department. I think good leaders actually embody both pieces.

As a leader, it’s your job to tell your people where you’re headed as a team. What will you accomplish? How will the world be different because of your work? Who will be impacted and why? To quote Adam Grant in Originals:

The greatest communicators of all time…start by establishing “What is…here’s the status quo.” Then, they compare that to what could be making that gap as big as possible.

Here’s three details to keep in mind when communicating that vision to make your rhetoric as effective as possible:

Make it simple, clear, and concrete.

In Good Boss, Bad Boss, Sutton defines what he refers to as the “Otis Redding Problem” referencing the song “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” There’s a line in the song that goes like this: “Can’t do what ten people tell me to do, so I guess I’ll remain the same.”

The takeaway is that holding your people to too many metrics or making the vision too complicated deters them from taking any steps forward. If the vision can’t be defined in a sentence and help team members decide exactly what to do next, it’s too complicated.

Don’t confuse the finish line with a mile marker.

The finish line describes your end destination. Mile markers establish your progress along the way. An issue occurs when a mile marker is confused as the finish line. Everyone expects a celebration and gets frustrated to find out they’re only halfway to the end goal.

Mile markers certainly deserve celebration, but everyone needs to be clear about the distinction between mile markers and the ultimate finish line.

Repeat the vision often.

Another quote from Originals that I return to often describes the importance of articulating your vision over and over:

You know the lyrics and the melody of your idea by heart. By that point, it’s no longer possible to imagine what it sounds like to an audience that’s listening to it for the first time. This explains why we undercommunicate our ideas. They’re already so familiar to us that we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them.

Every piece of communication whether that’s through email, one on one meeting, or team discussion is an opportunity to emphasize where you’re headed and why it’s important.

It’s not just communication that reinforces your vision though; actions do this as well. Your actions should fall in line with your communication and vice versa.

Failing to communicate the vision often enough and to take actions that embody that vision are both leadership failings.

How am I doing? Leaders provide feedback.

I’ve written extensively about feedback over the past several months including extensive guides on how to give better feedback and also on how to become a better feedback receiver.

Feedback is essential for getting the team to the final destination. It’s a mistake to assume that once you set the vision, everything else will just fall into place perfectly. Leaders need to provide actionable guidance along the way.

Don’t crush the bird.

Tommy Lasorda, former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, once compared management to holding a dove:

If you hold it too tightly, you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.

Sutton refers to this as Lasorda’s Law in Good Boss, Bad Boss. The implication is that it’s easy to over-manage your team and take away their sense of ownership over a task.

It’s your job to set the overall vision and describe any pertinent details about the finished product. What should it look like? What qualifications does it need to satisfy? It’s (usually) not your job to give a step-by-step tutorial for executing the idea.

In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, author Marshall Goldsmith refers to this mistake as “Leaders adding too much value.” The issues with “crushing the bird” are two fold. First, teammates will start to feel a loss of ownership around the idea. Second, instead of trying to figure it out on their own, they’ll just look to you for answers next time.

Let your people fail.

It’s imperative that leaders let their teammates make their own mistakes in most situations. Teaching is a huge component of leadership. People learn best from trying something new, falling on their face, and evaluating what could have gone better.

If you short circuit that path by stopping your team prior to failing, you’re preventing them from learning valuable lessons along the way. Obviously, you don’t want to allow your people to make devastating errors. Instead, the goal is to build a series of situations and checkpoints that allows you to evaluate progress and catch potential mistakes early on.

I loved this takeaway from Sutton about making mistakes:

One of the best tests of my leadership — and my organization — is “what happens after people make a mistake?”

How am I developing? Leaders grow their people.

The two aspects above – setting the vision and providing feedback – are pretty obvious aspects of leadership. The third aspect, growing your people, is just as important, but I believe it’s a piece that many leaders neglect to consider or rank somehow as less important as the other two.

Recognize which path they’re on.

In Radical Candor, author Kim Scott lays out a growth management framework that divides teammates into two categories – steep growth trajectory and gradual growth trajectory:

Those in the steep growth trajectory category are in a position to take on hard challenges that force them to grow at a rapid pace. Those on a more gradual growth trajectory can still be high performers, but for whatever reason, they’re not in a place to grow at remarkable rates at the moment.

It’s important to recognize which category your team members are in – gradual or steep – and act accordingly. Those in a steep growth trajectory are ready for new challenges and new opportunities. Those on a gradual trajectory might need more time and space.

Put them in position to showcase their skills.

One of your roles as a leader is to put your people in a position to succeed. It’s analogous to a high school football coach. You may have 50 kids on the team, most trying to be quarterback with dreams of making the NFL. Your job is to:

  1. Evaluate each kid and determine their strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Put them in a position on the field that maximizes their strengths.
  3. Give them all the credit when they make a big play in the championship.

As a leader, you should push opportunities towards teammates that will showcase their skills and allow them to grow.

Connect them with opportunities.

Lara Hogan had a phenomenal piece on sponsorship recently:

To sponsor someone is to feel on the hook to help get someone promoted. It is raising up the name of someone to help them get more opportunities to do visible, valuable work.

As a leader, your role is to act as a sponsor for everyone on your team. This includes learning about their strengths and the opportunities they want to pursue, keeping an ear to the ground to hear about matching opportunities around the organization, and connecting the two when possible. Then, step back and let your team member shine.

Over to you!

Trying to hold the three roles of a leader listed above in your head at all points is insanely difficult. It often feels like you’re failing at one or more aspects, and just when you improve one, you improve the other.

It’s important to note that simultaneous success at all three points is rare and very challenging. You’re likely never going to bat a thousand across the board. Just like your teammates though, your response should be to evaluate your own work critically, identify areas for opportunity, and keep pushing.

That’s my definition of leadership, but I’d love to hear yours in the comments!

Images:Radical Candor

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