I read a great post the other day, by Jan Sugar on LinkedIn. It was called, Where do you cry and spoke to the fact that we all have our individual pain and pleasure points, and good leaders recognize this and are able to relate more closely to their team members as a result. It got me to thinking about the qualities of a successful team leader. It goes without saying that a leader must be able to manage the team’s members in addition to the mission itself. To, as Jan put it, laugh and cry with them. To manage not just their work effort efficiently, but their emotions, too. But what enables a leader to do this?
Challenged by a question I don’t know the answer to, I like to start with the two extremes. Allow me please to illustrate with two examples: Many years ago, I was conscripted into the South African army. Two months into my enforced service, our camp was visited by a colonel. He assembled us all in the mess hall and said it had come to his attention that morale in the camp was low. Stunned by his obtuseness, I figured he must be a student of the playbook which begins with: “The firings and layoffs will continue until morale improves.” He told us that he was here to answer questions or comments to help him understand why we were unhappy. He insisted that any question was valid and encouraged us to speak out honestly. The first question from the ranks was, “How come the food is so bad?” His answer? “Expletive-deleted question. Sit!”
At the other end of this spectrum, I thought about President Kennedy issuing his challenge to America in 1961, to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind onto the moon’s surface in 1969. Kennedy’s challenge inspired America to overtake Russia’s lead in rocketry and space exploration to become the technology leader of the world in just 9 years. Great leadership on a national scale. So, the middle ground? I wrote a little about this here, but to be a successful leader, you must be capable of:
- Articulating the mission clearly to all team members in a way they accept and believe in.
- Knowing the team’s strengths and weaknesses and thus directing the work effort accordingly.
- Managing team member’s emotional states. To assuage fears with logical reasons delivered in a calm and reassuring way; to use humour and rational good sense to reduce anger and frustration; to inspire them when they are low by repainting the rewards they will reap when they reach their goal. In short, to be inspirational, empathetic and offer sage counsel when needed.
- Giving praise when its deserved; recognizing and rewarding exceptional contributions in ways which make them visible to the other team members. Studies repeatedly show that people care more about being recognized for their contribution than they do about the dollar amounts they are paid (provided their salary is in line with other team members).
- Providing the team members with the resources they need to do their jobs.
- Leading with courage, from the front. To take fire from competitors, media and all those who state with infuriating certainty that the mission is doomed. To do all this without ducking or pointing fingers at others. A willingness to undertake a mission not because its easy, but because its difficult: by definition, nothing worthwhile is ever easy to do.
- Cultivating the belief in every team member that it’s OK to fail the first time you try something. To educate all members that these events are learning experiences. To encourage that admitting failure is the first step in analyzing what went wrong and learning to avoid it the next time. This doesn’t mean you’ll get it right the next time, only that it’s not OK to try the same thing again in the same way.
- Sacrificing your own interests for the sake of the team, visibly, demonstrating by example that it’s the right thing to do.
There are other desirable attributes of course: charisma and intelligence are always a plus. But being able to do the jobs of the individual team members is not, IMHO. Sure, some people believe that a leader should be able to help struggling team members solve their issues quickly. But leaving a person to struggle often produces a better result and the truth is the person’s role in the team is the responsibility of the leader; their individual work effort is their own load to carry. The leader’s role is to make the resources available to provide help when needed.
Other success factors? I’d love to hear what you believe I’ve missed! Please comment below.