By Matt Thomas
Most of my leadership journey has been marked by mistakes. Shaped by failures, not victories. I have gotten more wrong than I have right and I’ve got the scars to prove it. I’ve stubbed my toes on problems that could have been avoided with some combination of maturity and humility that doesn’t always come naturally to me. I’ve run a business into the ground. I’ve lost great employees because of failures in my leadership. I’ve missed out on significant opportunities because I was focused on the wrong things. If this were a list of things great leaders NEVER do I could write you a novel. Maybe someday.
Thankfully, I’ve been afforded second, third, and fourth chances. Undeserved to be sure, but I’ve done what I can to take advantage of them. There are three things I’ve been told I am by those closest to me since I was a young boy–a bull in a china cabinet, a sponge, and a leader. The bull moniker is a nice way of saying that when things get off the rails I break anything and everything around me. It’s truer than I’d like it to be. The sponge label comes from my insatiable desire to learn and soak up everything I can. I’ve never been a great student, but when it comes to observing people–how they act, respond, and make decisions–I can’t get enough. The leader deal is because one out of ten of my ideas aren’t half bad and people get excited about them enough to jump on board. Before my grandfather died he told me, “Matt, people are going to follow you, for better or worse.”
As I think about things great leaders do, the sponge part of me is what I draw on most. I’ve been lucky enough to learn from some world class leaders. Men and women with an otherworldly gift to lead people well. What follows is largely a by product of things I’ve observed and am working hard to practice. Right now, our growing team is chock full of talent and passion. It’s an exciting time for our business and working with the people on this team is a gift I’m grateful for. Leading them well is a privilege and a burden I take seriously.
If you lead an organization you probably spend quite a bit of time thinking about how to lead your people effectively. Like me, you probably have a long list of things great leaders should never do. I hope the six principles below will give you some hope for how things could be.
Great leaders want more for their people than they want for themselves.
Do you want your people to succeed in their work? Do you want them to flourish both personally and professionally? It’s easy to say yes because you know they need to succeed in order for the organization to succeed, and that’s important, but great leaders sincerely want more for those around them than they wanted for themselves. Do you?
Great leaders are eager to understand the unique makeup of each individual on their team.
This takes time and intentionality and it can be frustrating, but it’s worth it. If you have at least one person on your team, then you, my friend, have a responsibility to know what makes them tick. What motivates them? What holds them back? What is important to them? How do they handle conflict? When you put in the time to really learn these things it will pay huge dividends in the health of your organization.
Great leaders know when to push and when to pull.
Sometimes everyone on board needs to buckle down and get things done. It’s okay to put it in fifth gear and keep the pedal down, for a time. Pushing your people past what they think they’re capable of is a healthy thing. It’s equally important to know when to dial things back. A hard charging, unrelenting boss is the worst. Make time for your team to celebrate, encourage, rest and play together. Know when to push and when to pull.
Great leaders cast a compelling vision, set clear performance metrics, and hold people accountable. Always and without exception.
Doing what’s best for the organization, and the people who comprise it, demands it. It may seem obvious that your organization can’t succeed without vision, metrics, and accountability, but your people can’t succeed without them either. Some people don’t like to be held accountable, but if you do it respectfully and across the board it will become a healthy part of your culture.
Great leaders hold authority and vulnerability in tension.
Leading with authority is a non-negotiable. You are the decision maker and your people expect you to have a plan of action. If you are stoic and impenetrable your people will never find any joy in following you. It’s important to let them in which means practicing appropriate vulnerability. Leadership can be lonely. It’s healthy to let your people get to know you.
Great leaders set the bar personally for character, performance, and culture.
You can’t hold your people accountable to a standard you aren’t willing to adhere to yourself. You set the bar and you model the way. How you lead, love, and serve will drip down into every member of your organization. It’s not do what I say, it’s what I do that really sets the tone for our team and our company. Model the behaviors you want to see in your organization.
We are on the long road friends, and it takes practice. Do the work of figuring out who you want to be and where you want to go. Then get moving. It matters.