How to Spot a Good Leader

11/14/2017 02:08 pm ET
Karen Naumann

There’s plenty of research out there, countless seminars, panel discussions, conferences and books, but how many of you actually work for or with people who are good leaders? And what actually makes a good leader?

Leadership has always been an interesting topic for me, not only because my dad is a CEO of a German “Mittelstand” medium-sized company, but also because I’ve had my own share of observations and experiences with all kinds of leaders.

The plotters, the narcissists, the stubborn ones, the inconsistent ones, the change resistant ones, the bullies, the screamers, and the passive aggressive types.

Can you relate? You’ve probably worked with at least one of them.

In case you’re still contemplating your leadership team or own leadership style, here’s what I’ve found to be “must haves” for good leaders:

1. They delegate

Perhaps you’ve heard it before: “No, this will take too long to explain that to XYZ, so I’ll do it myself.” And yet we are still wondering why burnout rates have increased over the past years. How can we get things done as a team, or even call it a team, if everyone ends up doing everything on their own?

Leadership consists not only of the obvious – e.g. the CEO and CFO - of a company. It includes supervisors, team leads and all kinds of positions where people are supervising others.

The leadership planet can be a quite lonely place and for some leaders delegating means giving up power or the right to exist in that position. It even goes so far that they fear being replaceable and even fired.

As I wrote in my article about Workaholism: the fact is everyone is replaceable at work when it comes to tasks and skills. However, good leaders are rare and not easy to find.

So when it comes to delegating, leaders should give their team responsibility and the chance to grow and achieve a goal by laying the groundwork, but not micromanage them.

2. They acknowledge others and let them have the spotlight

You’ve worked really hard, prepared a presentation, put all your creativity and research into it and then the day of the release arrives and you discover that not even your name is mentioned in it?

I’d say it has happened to almost all of us. It’s unfair, unnecessary, and demotivating,

Sure, sometimes it can be tough to have others get the praise and applause. However, it takes a leader to see that praise as a reflection on them, because this other person wouldn’t receive it without the team and a good leadership behind them.

A real leader sees and understands the value of his or her team members and acknowledges them. It’s amazing how many “leaders” underestimate the power of appreciation. It’s just like feedback, the mitochondria of a cell, the chain of a bicycle, the gasoline in a car. Without it, we will eventually stop “working” – literally.

3. They are present

And I mean present at the workplace. Accessible. Of course leaders have many duties and engagements outside of the office, and need vacation just as much as everyone else, but being present and showing up in person increases team spirit, the feeling of belonging to a team, and productivity and loyalty - BIG TIME.

Think about it, if you feel like your leader is just around the corner, accessible, and available to hear you out, how does that make you feel? It usually gives us a feeling of being important, cared for and valued.

Unless they’re not a good leader, in which case you might be happy not having him or her around, but that’s surely not a good indicator for successful leadership and overall happiness at work anyway, is it?

4. They are consistent and don’t play favorites

These are probably two of the most important characteristics of a leader. Consistency in their way of leading other people and the business according to ethics and values and fairness when it comes to administering company policies and procedures equally.

Especially nowadays where purpose and meaning play a bigger role than ever for employees, being inconsistent with what the company states it believes in vs. what they do, determines the overall success and turnover rate of its people as well.

Similarly, if a leader exhibits favoritism, for example when it comes to equality regarding vacation, benefits, or assignment of projects, then it might be only a matter of time until team spirit, loyalty, respect, motivation and happiness at work fades.

For example, if someone breaks the rules and the leadership reaction equals zero, then two things can happen: one, the other employees lose respect for the leadership and perhaps test their limits, which can create quite a lot of chaos, or two, they feel betrayed, lose trust in their leadership and eventually leave.

High turnover rates are an expensive loss for any company, not only monetary wise but also when it comes to their employer brand and public image. A good leader surely won’t find either of these consequences preferable.

5. They are role models and behave with integrity

Leaders are encouragers, believers, and role models for their team.

The latter is particularly important because if leaders work around the clock, don’t take care of themselves, or behave unethically, it reflects on the team and influences them both directly and indirectly.

Creativity and innovation cannot be taught or forced; it comes with a level of well-being, a feeling of being needed, understood and trusted, in a safe environment.

Good leaders understand the absolute significance of integrity and take care of their team by taking care of themselves. Leadership means keeping a lot of balls in the air at the same time which requires a stable ground and good balance – in all areas of life.

6. They admit mistakes and failure

Everyone makes mistakes. It’s human. It’s not always pleasant, but actually is a blessing for our self-development. And believe it or not, leaders are just as human as every one of us.

Just flip through some biographies of famous leaders: they all have one thing in common: they failed before they succeeded, and luckily they shared their lessons with us.

Good leaders are not afraid of sharing their failures with their team, because they understand the value and impact of it.

It not only helps their team members to forgive themselves when they make a mistake, it also encourages them to be okay with being imperfect and motivates them to get up again and keep going. Trial and error is still one of the best ways to learn.

7. They provide feedback … and they are open to receiving feedback from others as well.

As I mentioned in my article about the importance of feedback, feedback not only sets the stage for self-reflection and growth, it also increases our self-awareness and feeling of belonging. We feel cared about and heard, which should not be underestimated.

The same goes for leaders who are not only giving but also receiving feedback. Again, it can be quite lonely in the C-Suite, so believe it or not, whenever I provided constructive feedback to leaders, I’ve experienced almost exclusively gratefulness on the other end.

There are too many followers who are afraid of disagreeing and challenging a decision or opinion of a leader, which is usually reflected in turnover rates or unhappiness at work. That’s why we shouldn’t stop our critical thinking when we graduate from university and keep wondering and respectfully questioning decisions of leaders, too.

Always keep in mind that no one is born knowing exactly how to navigate this leader’ship.’ It’s just like a relationship or friendship – it needs feedback and work. There’s so much to learn, so much to experience, and a lot to self-reflect about on both sides.

So, let’s make sure that this leader’ship’ will stay on course. Not alone, but together with its team.

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." John Quincy Adams
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