Twenty-One Tips to Be an Effective Leader

Payson Hall writes that effective leadership boils down to a few common sense principles. In this article, he assembles twenty-one tips toward becoming (and remaining) an effective leader. Some of the tips include prioritizing, being transparent, and allowing honest mistakes.

I just finished the book, Work like a Spy: Business tips from a former CIA officer by J.C. Carleson. Her book offers an interesting perspective on business and leadership from the viewpoint of a former CIA station agent. She suggests the number one attribute of a CIA field officer is integrity. Interesting read because she did time in the CIA as well as the private sector, so she has a broader view of business and leadership than most. It was an OK book, but there wasn’t much new hiding in there.

I try to read a new book about leadership every year or so, looking for new ideas and giving myself a booster shot. There are a few classics I recommend: Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and Jerry Weinberg’s “Becoming a Technical Leader” should be on your shelf/iPad/Kindle right now and read every couple of years. But, if you want the Cliff’s notes for effective leadership, it boils down to a few common sense principles that you can get from a short article, and you can look to those books for richer context, examples, and information.

In that spirit, here is an assemblage of twenty-one tips toward becoming (and remaining) an effective leader.

1. Prioritize
Understand what is important; tell your team members. Explain your rationale so that they can prioritize in your absence. With experience, your team should know how you would prioritize a situation most of the time.

2. Don’t Shoot the Messenger
If people expect punishment when they deliver bad news, they will stop bringing you bad news. Do you think bad things will stop happening or will people just stop telling you about them?

3. Be Transparent
Avoid information hiding. If you play your cards face up on the table people can accuse you of misplaying the hand, but not cheating.

4. Don’t Pose Enemies
Most people are trying to do their best with the situation as they understand it. Few people are actively trying to thwart you. If you assume people are trying to be helpful and try to imagine how you might interpret their actions as being supportive, it is easier to understand and forgive “difficult” people—maybe they are just missing key information. On the other hand, if you assume people who oppose you are your enemies, you often close the door to constructive discussions and resolutions.

5. Recognize and Acknowledge Both Hard Work and Results
A common management wisdom mistake is giving guidance to only honor results (“This isn’t the self-esteem little league where everyone gets a trophy!”). If people are digging holes or making widgets, evaluate them solely on results. When people are engaged in challenging problem solving or creative activity and occasionally go down the wrong rabbit hole looking for a solution, honor their effort. If someone spends a weekend they could have been with their family hunting bugs in your software system, honor the sacrifice.

6. Allow Honest Mistakes
If people know you don’t sweat honest errors, they are more likely to let you know when they make one. If a team owns its errors, it can look for process improvement and hopefully avoid similar mistakes in the future. A great way to model this behavior is to admit your own errors.

7. Don’t Tolerate Sabotage
An honest mistake is one made, not knowing that it will result in failure or won’t deliver results. Sabotage is intentional error, or intentionally causing someone else to make an error—like withholding information you know is important from a team member. Saboteurs undermine the team and poison morale; get rid of them quickly.

8. Don’t Tolerate Dishonesty
Do you need to trust your team? Do team members need to trust you and each other? Lies of commission (saying something that isn’t true) or omission (remaining silent rather than correcting something that is incorrect or false) can’t be tolerated because they undermine trust.

9. Forgive
The fist time a team member violates a rule, assume you didn’t make yourself clear and review the expected behavior in private. This was hard for me at first, but in the long run it helps sort errors in judgment from bad intentions. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes.

10. Don’t Hesitate to Say “I Don’t Know”
This sets a tone for your team that cuts down on posturing and gives team members permission to do the same.

11. Don’t Reward One Behavior While Expecting Another
Incentive systems can be perverse, rewarding long hours rather than productivity, bug fixing rather than fault prevention. Be on the lookout for incentive systems that reward individuals (encouraging competition) while extolling teamwork.

12. Never Throw Your Troops Under the Bus for the Boss or Client
You are responsible for everything your team does or fails to do. If they screwed up, you screwed up. You should have trained them better, supported them better, given them clearer instructions, or resigned because you weren’t up to the task of leadership.

13. Never Throw the Boss or Client Under the Bus for Your Troops
If you are working for a dysfunctional organization, leave. Clients and executives usually have rational reasons for what they do, even if you don’t always agree with those reasons. Trying to understand and explain decisions that seem arbitrary is hard, but ultimately it is more motivating for team members to understand why a decision didn’t go their way than having them believe that they are being subject to capricious or arbitrary decisions.

14. Expect no Better Behavior Than You Exhibit
If you fudge the expense report rules, you give your team permission to fudge the rules through your example. If you speak ill of a team member when he isn’t around, you establish that as a norm for your team. Your dedication, enthusiasm, and ethics should be beyond reproach.

15. Care about People
You should have an interpersonal connection to each team member. You do this by going to lunch or breakfast or getting a coffee. You don’t have to be best friends, but you should have a sufficient relationship that people trust you to tell you what’s really going on.

16. Learn to Delegate
The key to delegation isn’t just giving work to other people, it’s learning to let them do it differently than you would have done as long as the results are minimally acceptable. This is hard, particularly when your experience tells you there is a better way. Empowering people to do the work means letting them explore their own approach.

17. Learn to Coach
The best professional coaches don’t necessarily tell you what to do, they point out bits of context or information that you might have missed or consequences you may not have considered. They show you how to discover your error and what cues you may have missed. The gentlest and most effective way to do this is by asking questions rather than telling. Compare, “Don’t do it that way, it will be harder to back up!” with “How will we back this system up?” Which teaches you more? Which lesson are you most likely to remember?

18. Treat Everyone with Courtesy and Respect
This is a good general rule of success, but it is particularly important that you model this as a leader. Disagreements are allowed and maybe encouraged. Disrespect is inappropriate.

19. Don’t Panic
In a crisis, teams look to their leaders for contextual clues. If the leader is panicked, it will amplify the unease in the team. Treat situations with the gravity they deserve, but save panic and anger for the rare situations that truly deserve it.

20. Move Rocks and Carry Water
Remember the role of a leader is to serve and empower the team to do great things. From time to time ask, “What can I do to make things go more smoothly around here?” Then shut up and listen to the answers. After this, act where you can to address the concerns.

21. Laugh
I have worked with several great leaders; all appreciated a sense of humor and encouraged it in those around them. One of my team leaders, Dave, had a team working on a particularly thorny and esoteric problem. The other teams were building bits of infrastructure and user interfaces that resulted in ongoing visible successes—but Dave’s team thrashed out equations and difficult complex design issues with little obvious progress beyond scribbles on a white board. To tease him for presiding over such a quiet group, I got him a sweatshirt with the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character on it (I was trying to be ironic). He took a knife and cut out Taz, then grabbed a broom and broke off the handle—fashioning a make-shift flag for his “tribe,” which he planted with a roar above their cubical farm. Not only did everyone on the project have a good laugh, the flag flew proudly over that team for several months. Think they were motivated much?

Wasn’t that easier than reading a whole book? Could you picture examples of these behaviors? Admittedly, some come more naturally than others. Can you honestly say that you consistently apply these principles? If so, you are a more consistent leader than I am—but I’m still trying to perfect my game.

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