My research conducted over a two-year period revealed six practices that separate the best leaders from the rest.
I’ve been in leadership roles for over two decades and read hundreds of leadership and business books. I learned from all the books and all my experiences. Yet I still wanted to know more about leadership from the “real world” experiences of successful leaders. Several years ago, I did exactly that by interviewing about eighty successful, high-level leaders from many industries. The key question that kicked off each interview was this: “In your experience, what have you seen that separated the best leaders from the rest?” These were fascinating conversations. These leaders talked with clarity and conviction about the leaders they respected the most, and why they stood out. After analyzing the transcripts from these interviews, six clear themes emerged as the practices that “separated the best leaders from the rest.” Following is a summary of those leadership practices.
Build trust is listed first because it is first. As many of these leaders explained, without trust, the rest of it doesn’t matter. People don’t follow leaders they don’t trust. Trust is built over time and can be lost in a moment. In the workshops that I lead, I always ask the group, “Is it an overstatement to say that in leadership and life, trust is everything?” The answers from the group is always a resounding NO. It is not an overstatement. Trust is everything. Trust is the glue that holds all relationships together, personal and business. According to these leaders, businesses with high-trust cultures outperform business with low-trust cultures all day long; definitely true in my experience. The best leaders build trust.
This is the age-old practice of servant leadership. It is not as much of a skill as it is a mindset. The essence of this practice is setting people up for success with training, coaching, supporting and providing all the tools required to be successful. The mistaken idea about servant leadership is that it is “soft.” Servant leadership practiced properly is a coin with two sides: support and accountability. One of the interviewees said it well: “This is what separates bosses from leaders.” Many of these leaders said what legendary CEO Jack Welch was quoted to say, “Leadership is not about you. It is about your people.” Most of us have worked for both; leaders that get it and self-serving bosses that don’t. Admired leaders get it.
The purpose of clarity is keeping people on the same page, pulling in the same direction, toward goals that matter. As these leaders told me, easy concept, hard to do. Think about the barriers to everyone being on the same page. People in different locations. The crush of emails, texts, meetings, phone calls, initiatives and changing priorities all competing for attention. There may be few things more important to leadership than creating clarity on many levels. Think about a clarity ladder starting at the top and working your way down. Vision, purpose, strategy, company goals and initiatives, projects, departmental goals and initiatives, and individual responsibilities and goals. It is a lot to clarify. And yet, having everyone on the same page, pulling together is a tremendous competitive advantage. Strategy can fail in execution without clarity. Change initiatives that lack clarity stand little chance. Individuals at any level who lack clarity about their role and expectations will struggle. One of the leaders made a great point. “Clarity is everyone’s job; to create it and seek it out.”
Work with Purpose and Passion
I read a story many years ago about when U.S. President Kennedy was touring NASA in the early sixties. As he was meeting people, he asked a gentleman who was a custodian, “what do you do here at NASA?” The custodian’s proud response was, “Mr. President, I am helping put a man on the moon.”
I love that story. It is about someone who understood that his job contributed to a noble purpose. A mission larger than himself. So it is with the best leaders. They work with a passion that comes from a sense of purpose. A purpose that matters. As leaders, they convey that noble purpose to their teams through their words and actions in a way that unifies and energizes people. One of my favorite interviews with these leaders was a woman who started a catalog business from nothing and then transformed it into a successful specialty retail chain that is still growing. When I asked her what the secret sauce was that fueled their success, she simply stated, “Passion. I have a passion for this business, and I hire people who share my passion.”
Fully Engage People
According to many of these leaders, the antidote to low levels of employee engagement we see in survey after survey is leadership. One leader explained, “Our approach to fully engaging people is to consider that everyone brings a heart, a mind, and a skillset with them to the job.” When it comes to engaging people, one size does not fit all. As leaders, an important way to engage the heart is through recognition and feedback. The more we appreciate the value people bring to the job, the more valued they feel, and the more value they bring. Engaging the mind is about tapping into the knowledge and ideas people have – and listening. We best engage people’s skillset by putting them in roles that fit their natural abilities. Companies with higher levels of engagement have a distinct advantage over their competitors.
Act with Courage
“Leadership is not for the faint of heart,” proclaimed many of these leaders. “It requires backbone.” When I conduct leadership workshops, I ask these two questions. First, what situations in your leadership roles require courage? The answers most cited include having tough conversations, holding people accountable, disagreeing with higher-level leaders, making tough decisions, letting someone go and owning mistakes. Most of us can cite examples of when we didn’t act with courage and the painful consequences of not acting. The second question is “Is courage hardwired or developed.?” What’s your answer?
Applying the Practices
Once I documented the themes from these interviews, I set out to validate them in my own experience. As the head of Human Resources for a global company, I had a lot of leadership experience but realized I still had much to learn. While I had some strengths in each of these practices, I realized I could improve in every one of them. So, I set out to do so. Each week for about a year or so, I set a goal to focus on one of these practices on the job. I let what was happening on the job guide that I worked on each week. After about a year of this practice, I realized that my leadership skills developed more in that year than in the previous ten or so. The key was focusing on developing one of these best practices a week at a time and understanding the synergy between these practices. They reinforce each other. Building trust allowed me to act with courage. Serving others made it much easier to fully engage people.
Once I felt confident about the authenticity of these practices, I developed a workshop from these practices titled “Diamond Quality Leadership.” I delivered it to every manager at every level all over this global enterprise. The CEO called this leadership model “The Bible” for how we practice leadership. Maybe a stretch, but it provided a solid foundation for leadership development.
Over time, three other benefits became apparent. First, a consistent approach to leadership strengthened an already healthy culture. Second, it provided a solid platform for change. Change initiatives have a much greater chance to be successful in a high trust culture, and little chance in a low trust culture. Finally, the Millennial generation is becoming an increasingly larger percentage of our workforce. They want better bosses, clearer career paths and healthy cultures. With the Great Resignation, companies with skilled managers and healthy cultures have a tremendous advantage in the competition for talent.
About the Author
Dr. Mark Hinderliter works with clients to align people strategy with business strategy. His experience as a Senior Vice President for a billion-dollar global enterprise along with a PhD in Organization and Management are a unique fusion of real-world experience and academic credentials.
Mark is a Veteran-owned Business Owner and a Certified Partner with The Predictive Index, a Talent Optimization firm providing solutions for aligning people strategies and business strategies.
Mark’s LinkedIn profile is https://www.linkedin.com/in/markhinderliter/