The Human Element of Great Leadership

I’ve been asked a few times recently to give advice to leaders. I have usually responded by saying that I don’t have enough perspective or experience to have distilled any universal truths that would be credible advice that I think someone else should take. That said, the question keeps coming up, and there are probably a few words I can string together on the topic.

What I can share are lessons I’ve learned for myself. I’m not suggesting anyone take these lessons as advice for themselves, but these experiences that I’ll share may help direct your own thoughts in the future. Here it goes.

Have no ego

To be a great leader, I have found that you must have no ego whatsoever. Leaders with egos need to feel more important, smarter, needed. This is toxic for a few reasons:

  1. Leaders with egos hire people that aren’t as good as they are. The entire team underperforms because their leaders cobbled together the wrong team. This is where the saying “A players hire A players; B players hire C players” comes from.
  2. Leaders with egos ensure that people need them. For example, they might hand over most of the reigns, but keep an important step for themselves, so people have to keep coming back to them. Why is this so bad? Well, a team that would crumble without any one single member is a team hobbling on one leg.
  3. Leaders with egos don’t allow a winning ideology to permeate the team, so their team lacks a basic cohesion, depth, and alignment. Instead, people work “for” him. These leaders prefer to be the charismatic, well-known, potentially genius face of the team instead of supporting and resourcing their team members with a unifying purpose and method for success. This means they aren’t succession planning — so when they go, any performance the team was able to achieve before won’t last very long.

Lead from behind

Don’t manage people. If someone can’t manage themselves, they probably don’t belong on our small, high-passion, high-energy team. Making more rules tethering people to their desk at specific hours of the day, telling them how many days they are allowed to not be at the office per year, and telling people exactly how to do their job are all ways of managing people. People that should already know how to handle all of those things (time management, how to do their job, etc.) on their own.

Rather than leading from above, I ought to lead them from behind; instilling in them our core identity as a team, and our envisioned future, and supporting them as they carry our flag forward in the direction we all see fit. We first huddle; aligning onto a common purpose and goal, then the entire team works together to get us there.

Motivate with Purpose and Goals

In my experience, it’s much more effective to motivate not with carrots and sticks (rewards and punishments, see Drive), but rather with a meaningful purpose and audacious goals.

If I told you, “we’re going to build this thing over the next year, and if it succeeds, I’ll give you a 5% bonus, but if we start to slip, we’ll lose vacation days” how would you react? Would it motivate you? How much?

If I told you, “we believe that people should get to control who can send them email. We believe that people shouldn’t have to waste so much time in their inbox with pedantic tasks. We believe that we can improve people’s lives by freeing up their time for more important things — meaningful work, time with their family, etc. Because of this, we’re going to topple the biggest incumbent in the email industry with the innovation that we’re pulling together over this next year.” How would you react? Would it motivate you? How much?

My role as a leader is not to light a fire under people. My role is to light a fire in people — to paint a picture of the future, and fight like hell alongside my team members to get us there.

Fight alongside your team

I think many poor leaders think of themselves as head coach, when they should think of themselves as team captain.

A friend of mine, a CEO at a young company, went through tough times and a few team members left the team. Instead of demanding the other team members work more until replacements could be found, this CEO hopped right into the assembly line alongside the rest of the team and help get the products out the door on time. This CEO, along with ever member of their team, understands their common purpose and their common goal, and they’re working together to make it happen, regardless of the circumstances.

Motivation and Fulfillment

By doing all of these things, we’ve found that we can foster an environment that motivates people to get up in the morning to come to work, and leaves people feeling fulfilled at the end of the day.

Our lead developer at Mindsense, Jeb, put it this way:

The environment we’ve created at Mindsense where I can use exciting technology to build useful software for other people makes me look forward to coming into work everyday… I had always felt like I was a part of something bigger that just a 9–5 job.

Notice he said “the environment we’ve created” — it’s something that he has a sense of ownership over; his input matters, and he can help mold Mindsense into the company that he, along with the rest of his ream members, feels should exist in the world. This level of personal buy-in is incredibly fulfilling.

He also said “for other people” which has strong ties to our purpose. You can immediately see the effect that has in his last sentence, “I was a part of something bigger that just a 9–5 job.”



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