Behaviors of Exceptional Leaders

Being a leader is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or not a leader. True leadership takes practice—you must earn the respect of your team, your organization, and your customers all day, every day.

I’ve met hundreds of leaders and worked with some of the best over the course of my career. Those that are most effective consistently challenge themselves to pay attention to all 11 of the behaviors listed below and they make constant, incremental improvements to them.

1. Respect Everyone

I high five and say hello to whoever is managing the front desk of my building every morning, at lunch, and before I leave the office each day. Same is true for the barista and the checkout clerk at the grocery store. I’m not expecting anything in return. I simply believe you get back what you put out into the world. I like to think that respecting and appreciating everyone I encounter brings a little joy to them — it sure makes my day better.

There are plenty of people in power who don’t respect everyone equally. These people are not leaders. A real leader knows that they don’t have all the answers and they’ll need to rely on others for support. The only way others will trust you enough to follow you and support you is if you’ve consistently shown them respect.

2. Trust Your Team

Leaders require trusted information to make decisions and accelerate progress. Which means you need your team to be comfortable being honest and vulnerable with you. How do you encourage that? Show your team you trust them by being vulnerable with them yourself—share your challenges and what you learned from past failures. Then, make sure they have both the responsibility and authority to accomplish their goals. I call this alignment of responsibility and authority ownership.

When your team trusts you, they will tell you the truth and engage in healthy conflict. They will show you that they’re just as invested in the outcome of the decision as you are, and that’s invaluable because it allows you to build strong relationships.  

3. Value Relationships

You will have significantly more opportunities to achieve your goals if you foster meaningful relationships throughout your career. The adage that “who you know matters more than what you know,” rings true in business and in life for good reason. That’s because people want to work with people who take care of them, support them, and treat them right.

As a leader, it’s your job to maintain professional relationships with everyone on your team—even if they aren’t people that you would like to socialize with outside the office. Furthermore, it’s your job to create the conditions necessary for your team to build and sustain positive relationships. My approach is to start and maintain every relationship as one where I’m committed to being “of service” to the other person. Every interaction I have begins and ends with “what can I do for them?” This empathetic mindset is what attracts people to want to work with you.  

Empathy begins with understanding life from another person’s perspective. Nobody has an objective experience of reality. It’s all through our own individual prisms.

4. Practice Empathy

The most mature, driven, and demanding leaders understand that you need the support of your team to be successful. If you want to create a high performing team, you need to show each individual that you care about them and are able to see from their perspective. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything they say—but you do need to be able to take their point of view into consideration.

The times we need to practice empathy are usually when things aren’t going well and we’re in a position to provide guidance and support. Actively listen and confirm you get it before you recommend solutions. For example, someone who’s frustrated by a negative interaction with a customer needs to know that you understand their frustration before you work on the solution. The key is to acknowledge what they’re experiencing and be authentic in how you demonstrate that you’ve heard them.

5. Be Authentic

Leaders do not pretend to be something they aren’t. If you lead a team of two, three or 10 people, you need to make sure everyone knows your motivations, your goals, and your blind spots. Only then will your team truly rally behind you, stick up for you, and have your back when things go sideways.

One great question is: “What’s your warning label?” Mine is: I expect a lot, and I’m going to be brutally direct with my feedback—but it will always come from a place of optimism and support. My team knows upfront that I am not going to pull punches, and I expect the same in return. The result is an authentic relationship built upon healthy dialogue, transparency and very few surprises.

A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.

7. Encourage Feedback

Assumptions are the root cause of most frustrations in the workplace. Yet they continue to happen every single day. Why? People are busy. As a result, we try to save time by communicating quickly and electronically. That’s where things go wrong. It’s easier to fire off a dozen messages while sipping your coffee in the morning rather than having an actual conversation with someone. But tone, intention, and context are impossible to decipher via email, text or Slack, and the feedback we give and receive either gets lost in the shuffle or it gets misconstrued.

As a leader, your job is to make sure the members of your team are getting face time with each other to share feedback. At Upside, every person has multiple one-to-ones across their team—leaders, individual contributors and peers.

It’s also a good idea to understand how each person prefers feedback. For example, maybe they prefer to listen, think, and talk again later on, whereas your style is to hash it out on the spot. Those preferences matter, and if you honor them you’ll get better results from your team. But remember, it’s not enough to encourage people to share information—as a leader, you have to make sure you’re listening to what your team is saying, and doing something about it as a result.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”

8. Listen and Lead
It’s easy to think that the loudest person in the room or the first person to speak is the leader. The best leaders make time to listen to the feedback of others before making a decision. That doesn’t mean leaders can’t make decisions quickly. It simply means that leaders are open to outside perspectives to inform their decisions and know that they are more likely to succeed as a result.
Next time you’re having a one-to-one meeting with someone on your team, do yourself a favor: shut up and listen. If you find yourself talking, ask a question and let the person go for a little bit. 

Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach.

9. Make Change Normal

One of the unenviable responsibilities of leaders is that you’re required to make really tough choices. The best leaders understand that it’s critical to change course when presented with new information, even if new facts conflict with prior decisions. A truly exceptional leader will adjust their strategy given the new context.

Here’s what that might look like. Let’s say a wave of customer feedback has come in that is highlighting a gap in a feature of your product. It might make sense to put new features on hold while the team addresses the gap. The key is to communicate changes that follow a feedback loop/pattern, for example you need to acknowledge that you:

  1. Had a strategy (to build new features in the next sprint)
  2. Received new information (customers state they need better existing features)
  3. Realized you need to develop a new strategy (put the development of new features in the backlog and prioritize the customer feedback work)

The best leaders practice this pattern daily—checking if the constant flow of new information requires a change in strategy. By making change a normal part of your routine, you increase your ability to be resilient in good times and bad.

10.Be Resilient

If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never take risks and, you’ll never do anything truly remarkable. Being resilient means owning mistakes, learning from them, and quickly moving on.

Don’t let a negative experience of the past hinder your future progress. Remember the lesson and make sure you’re applying the learning to the next challenge that comes your way. Further, if you really want people to take ownership—responsibility and authority—to deliver outcomes for you, you need to have their back when things don’t work out, so they can learn to be resilient too. To do that, you need to let go and allow other people to own the things you normally would do yourself.

11. Let Go

Perhaps the hardest thing for any leader to learn is how to transfer ownership and to trust other people to perform a task or project. It’s not surprising when you think about it. Many leaders become leaders by excelling as individual contributors. When it comes time to cede that responsibility and authority to someone else, it can feel unnatural.

A successful leader must be comfortable with the fact that other people may not perform a given task to the same level of quality as you would on your own, or that they may even fail completely. However, allowing the people you lead to do things on their own builds their confidence, and in time, allows them to grow and take on even more—that’s your primary job as a leader. If you let go of your own desire to do it your way and instead empower the person to build their capability, that’s where the true leverage is. If you’re really good, you’ll have hired people that you respect and trust to deliver an even better outcome than you would have.

Leaders Never Stop Practicing

Exceptional leaders are people that know they are on a continuous journey of practicing leadership, and recognize that the opportunity for improvement is constant. They also know that practice is by far the most important habit to invest in to be successful. I’m by no means a perfect leader, but I’m working every day on getting better.

What leadership experiences have stuck with you? What leadership traits do you admire? What have you learned from failed leadership?


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