Four leadership principles to become a good leader

Four leadership principles to become a good leader
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash
“Look at what you have built — did you ever imagine that this was going to be so big?”

A colleague asked me this question at a team event fairly recently.

My answer — “always”.

I was confident in my response because I had laboured over for years on the degree of impact my/team leadership had on the realisation of goals dreamt years ago.

We had grown rapidly for years and I knew that I was doing something right but couldn’t boil it down to it’s essence. Then, a few years ago, I was at a Tony Robbins event where it struck me that I/our team was living the principles that he often talks about.

Principle #1: See things as they are

Not positive or negative but as they are. People usually fall into two camps: Glass half full or glass half empty.

The glass half empty camp looks at the world cynically — “things are never going to be better around here”. These are people that you should avoid — I know because I used to be one of them. I had role models who were cynical and responded to new ideas with a snarky comment — “Utterly uncool to try this new idea because it won’t work”… and it is devastating to effect any type of change.

The glass half full camp looks at the world optimistically — “things aren’t bad, they are actually wonderful and for the the stuff that doesn’t work, we will vision board the heck out of it”. I swung my pendulum from the cynical side to this side but slowly realised that there always remained an incongruence between reality and the optimistic version which wasn’t healthy. Plus, one can never tell if things can get better because everything is pretty good to begin with. Ironically, wide-eyed enthusiast and a sceptic may end up achieving similar results. That said, I’d rather have an optimist on the team than a sceptic because coming into work is easy.

I have always looked for the buddhist “middle way” to bring disparate viewpoints together. In this case, the third way is that the glass is both half full and half empty at the same time and that is truly pragmatic.

Translated to leadership, the first principle is where you recognise the strengths and your weaknesses and your landscape. You aren’t irrationally optimist or pessimist but pragmatic.

This becomes all the more important in the startup world because your glass in a startup world is truly not half full but perhaps 1/8th full. You have some strengths and you have a number of weaknesses. Too often startups make mistakes because they either over-estimate their strengths “our key recipe is our secret algorithm that will make us successful” or under-estimate their weaknesses “we don’t need sales yet because our customer success team will create the necessary virality”.

Unless you have the capability to realistically assess where you are it is difficult to go to where you need to be. This brings me to principle #2.

Principle #2: See things better than they are

Essentially, know where the summit is where the flag has to be posted.

Why are you here in this businesses? You saw where things are and you know how to improve them. You have defined your why and you will start your journey to the summit. Some entrepreneurs do this very well but most are rather optimistic “we will change the world” … by bringing in app that sends a “yo” to someone-else — you get the point! This is why principle #1 is important comes before #2 to bring in pragmatism. As a leader, it is your responsibility to keep the audacious goals in the realm of achievability — usually this is backed by your domain and market expertise.

The eye-on-the-summit all the time is an important skill because others on your team won’t see it or believe it. I was often met with an incredulous look when I would call out the summit. Gradually, I learnt that some people cannot handle the summit height when they are at the base of the mountain and you have to break the summit down into series of milestones. I put people into circles and chose to expose the level of milestones, the summit or even multiple summits based on their capability to digest this information without freaking out.

Imagine the billion caret diamond; PC

Principle 3: Make things the way you see it

Easier said than done. You know the summit, where you are and then the journey begins. The journey is always two steps forward, 1 sideways, 1 forward and two backwards.

One of the key points that I have learnt here is that you need to be resourceful (Tony Robbins speak). Being resourceful implies doing a number of small experiments to see which ones work and tend to them further. I hate the term fail-fast because I find that fail-fast fosters a mental attitude of surrendering. I prefer that the investment in small experiments are based on hypothesis that are rooted in some prior work or research and then there is a healthy amount of investment done to prove or disprove the hypothesis.

Being resourceful also means to be out of a comfort zone tending into an eustress environment. A good marketing example is that writing a blog isn’t enough but getting it syndicated is called success; more so if syndicated on publications you have no prior relationship with. This will bring out the inner resourceful tiger in you. I have found that OKRs tend to foster the resourceful behaviour more than other commonly used management by objectives metrics.

Principle 4: Communicate, communicate and over-communicate

This was one of my most painful experiences growing as a leader. I would put the “plays” down, talk to the teams to make sure that everybody was on the same page and when I circled back, I found that there was a game of whispers going on and people were lost.

People don’t really listen the first, the second or the third time and when they don’t the empty vacuum is filled by conjecture or juxtaposition.

Over a period of time, I learnt to my job was largely defined to keep repeating the why, where we are and the goal post and I had to do that in one-on-ones, public setting, over drinks and dinners.

I have been doing these 4 principles repeatedly

My normal pattern for years has been been now to dive in, determine the landscape pragmatically, determine the north pole, start working on getting things to the north pole and communicate repeatedly on why we are doing on what we are doing.

These principles are (credit in huge part to Tony Robbins for laying them succinctly):

  1. See things as they are
  2. See things better than they are
  3. Make it the way you see it and
  4. Communicate repeatedly (TR doesn’t talk about this principle)

You have live these principles on a daily basis to truly bring your team forward. Tying back to my colleagues question to me on whether I dreamt of the success we would achieve — absolutely.

I’d really love to hear from you on this topic and if you decide to bring them in, share your experience with me. If you live by other leadership principles, share them with me too.