Over the years, I have attempted to write articles that speak to leaders of all kinds. I firmly believe that whether you are a coach, a parent, or a business executive, leadership principles are generally universal. Solid principles and practice will almost always apply, regardless the setting you are in, simply because all of them have one thing in common: people. Leaders cannot be leaders without being responsible for the people around them. That is the burden and the blessing of these roles, and it is important that we always foster a genuine desire to improve our practice as leaders.
So, how do you know if you are a good leader in the eyes of your people? What are some ways that you can evaluate how well you are doing? This can be profoundly complicated, as directly asking your subordinates seldom works, given that most people lack the confidence or backbone to offer actionable criticism to the individual who controls their schedules, grades, pay raises and promotions. One can also attempt to get some usable feedback from anonymous satisfaction surveys. However, in my experience, these seldom yield meaningful data, as associates either disregard their importance or, in some cases, enthusiastically jump at the chance to unfairly embellish the sins of those who are in charge. What we need in order to improve our skills is real feedback — honest criticism presented in a way that makes us eager to develop into a more effective version of ourselves. While this sounds easier said than done, I am convinced that objectively observing the people you work with can give you some pretty amazing insight on how you are doing.
Ask yourself the important question: are you making your people’s lives better or worse as their leader? It is important to note that I didn’t say “easier”, as that is something that has never been a goal of any exceptional leader that I have known or read about. There are many ways an observant leader can evaluate how they are doing, but it does require genuine courage and intellectual honesty. When you walk in the room, are people relieved and comforted that you are there? Or do you increase the stress levels and tension of those around the meeting table? Great leaders provide a secure environment for their associates that fosters trust, clear direction, and urgency towards doing a good job. Poor leaders leave everyone under them feeling profoundly insecure and frustrated.
Here are some things to consider:
1. Always be attentive to the flow of communication.
If you are the originator of most of your communications—whether it is emails, meetings, or conversations—then you might have a problem regarding your approachability and openness to feedback. Effective leaders are always committed to both incoming and outgoing communication with all their subordinates. Their people don’t always have to be solicited for feedback or forced into problem-solving. They feel secure and confident enough to respectfully offer their opinions and ideas because they know they are valued and are contributing to the organization’s success. While almost all leaders preach an “open door policy,” effective leaders live by it and everyone is a beneficiary.
2. Never allow an associate to feel like they are alone and unsupported.
I have mentored several leaders over the years who have wrongly assumed that their people know that they can ask for help or support if they need it. Don’t guess at your credibility — build it. Make certain that you are constantly checking in with your people to make certain they are getting the support, resources, and encouragement that they require to be successful. On the occasion that they aren’t, act immediately and deliver on their needs. This is an important investment that pays off in countless ways.
3. When observing your people, don’t confuse fear for respect, placation for engagement, or submissiveness for loyalty.
Individuals who are placed in leadership positions often make the mistake of believing that they are doing better than they really are. This optimism can be very damaging, as there is often a huge difference between people’s surface feelings and their honest feelings. The best way to tell is to work on creating familiarity between yourself and those who report to you. Over time, those relationships should grow and become more genuine.
4. Be honest about your outcomes.
A leader whose department has a positive culture, great outcomes, low turnover, and an engaged workforce is probably doing something right. Conversely, a leader who has a negative culture, poor outcomes, and an apathetic workforce is not. Don’t allow excuses to explain away bad performance. Most of the time, bad leadership is behind bad results. If a supervisor is mature enough to own their responsibility for the outcomes of their organization, they very well might have the maturity to change their approach towards their people for the better.
To be a great leader is to lead a life of constant introspection. You must constantly evaluate yourself, and observe the behaviors and performance of your team is one of many strategies you can and should employ. I would strongly suggest adopting an attitude of never being satisfied with your practice or skills as a leader, as satisfaction often leads to complacency — and that is dangerous territory.
Thanks for reading.