Having started many clubs, organizations, and companies, I have my fair share of being a leader and getting leadership scars. I’ve also often been the leader while being the youngest person in the group. It wasn’t always like that. When I was a younger, I was the kid who everyone makes fun of while I worked my butt off trying to fit in my environment.
The process had to start all over again whenever I moved, as South Africa, Taiwan, Kansas, and California all had very different cultures. The turning point was when I started a chess club in high school, and during my sophomore year, I was elected President. With a new sense of responsibility, I realized that the whole organizations success rested on my shoulders.
I spent 4 hours a day making sure the young team is growing, and a culture of participation is maintained. And eventually the team became State Champions in my Junior Year (the team maintained the title for at least 4 years afterwards and finished strong nationally). From that point on, I have been leading groups of great people, and accomplishing exciting things that make a difference in this world. After all, it’s all about making life more meaningful.
Not everyone has good leadership
Leadership is, almost by definition, not something everyone has. It is like good writing: most people know how to write, but only few people can do it professionally. Most people know a little bit about leadership, but only a few know how to do it professionally.
Some of the most intelligent people in the world are not good leaders, but merely fit to be advisors of the leader. Robert Kiyosaki says that, to be an entrepreneur, leadership is the only skill you MUST have.
Being very young like I am, I cannot say that I am anywhere close to being the best leader I could be. However, I have put in a lot of thought into the issue, and have boiled down good leadership into 3 Pillars.
The first two steps of leadership
Before I dive into the 3 Pillars, I want to clarify that these are not the first 3 steps in being a leader. I believe the first step in being a leader is to feel comfortable about it.
If you can’t even convince yourself that you are worthy to lead the group, how can you convince others?
The second step in being a leader is being comfortable with others leading you, even when you are the leader.
That means you need to trust peoples’ core competencies, be able to delegate, and believe in your team when you are the only person who supports a plan. In my opinion, a cohesive team with the second best plan will always beat a broken team with the best plan. Alright, now that your eyes are already tired, lets go into the Three Pillars.
Pillar One: A Leader must have vision, and an unwavering conviction towards that vision.
A leader must know what direction the team is headed towards, and what is the absolute goal people want to achieve.
It is essential to have a strong sense of certainty because as long as you are doing something difficult or complex, team members will become lost in an ocean of tasks, distractions, variables, and uncertainty. This is when they look to the leader to bring them back to the big picture and understand where the group is headed towards.
This also means that the leader must be very logical and be able to see the big picture.
Members will challenge you with whatever they are uncomfortable about when they feel lost, and if you do not have the logical skills to justify everything the group is doing and connect it to the ultimate goal, you will fall apart too, let alone convince the team.
Finally, if the leader is not the most adamant and passionate person in the project, no one else will be. If the leader has a conviction of 10 towards the vision, his team members will have 8-9, and people working under them will have 6-7. If the leader has a conviction of 7, then the whole group falls apart.
Know where you are going, and be sure of it.
Pillar Two: A leader must have empathy towards the team and be able to connect with all the members.
As a leader, you must emotionally and psychologically connect with all your teammates: what motivates them, why are they doing this, what do they care about, what are they insecurities etc..
You wouldn’t dare market and sell a product if you didn’t understand the demographics and psychographics about your target market; how could you lead a team if you don’t have the same information?
When you sell, you understand the customer so you can effectively persuade them do something – buy your products. When you lead, you need to effectively persuade your team members to do thousands of tasks HAPPILY (bitter teammates are bad teammates), so there’s even more reason to know every little detail about them.
With that knowledge, you can create the right culture and environment where everyone does things the best with the highest morale. The leader’s job is to make everyone else better.
The best leader’s job is to have everyone make everyone else better.The environment is so essential to a productive team.
I have seen extremely competent people become unmotivated and perform poorly because of the environment, and I have seen otherwise weak performers become highly competent in the right environment. Some people just need a “good job!” after some hard work, some people are interested in non-monetary incentives, and some people just want to tackle the hardest problem they can find.
If you know how everyone feels and thinks, you can have everyone do what they want to do in the way they want, resulting in better productivity.
At the end of the day, when your teammates know that you care about how they feel and what they think, they will give you their work, trust and loyalty. The smartest math genius in the world might be able to solve the most complex equations, but still have no clue how to please one person without pissing off another. You as a leader must.
Pillar Three: A leader must know exactly what needs to be done to get the team towards the end goal and make absolute sure of progress.
Now that the leader understands the far vision and knows everything about the team members, the final pillar is to get the team moving towards the goal.
The leader needs to be the person who is accountable with execution, driving the group forward. In Good to Great by Jim Collins, Collin states that the best leaders (Level 5 Leaders) are usually not the charismatic ones, but often are very humble and non-exciting people.
That’s because the charismatic leader always wants to do new projects and get everyone motivated and excited, but the Level 5 Leader keeps saying the same things over and over until it gets done.
At the end of the day, if you don’t have stuff done, it doesn’t matter how great the plan is or who is participating, everything becomes meaningless.
A lot of people have a tough time building a bridge between the goal and the status quo. As undergrads, many people neglect getting good grades, internships, and self-development due to games, parties and the fun distractions you can find everywhere.
As professionals, many people do the least they can do with a bad attitude, and become bitter when their “over-achiever” co-workers are getting all the promotions.
Bridging reality to the goal is not something everyone knows how to do, but that’s something a leader must master in order to become effective.
Getting things done and focusing on action items is one of the concepts that don’t have libraries of how-to literatures on, primarily because it is so simple and straight forward.
Make sure everyone is accountable with their tasks and start executing! It’s that simple.
Leaders who only have two of the three pillars might not hold strong in the long run
A lot of leaders out there possess 1 or 2 of the three pillars here, but VERY few of them have all.
Some leaders are extremely passionate about the vision, connect well with all the members, but drive progress very slowly.
Some leaders understand the direction very well, and are very good at driving progress but sometimes at the expense of pissing off team members. Fortunately, this is the type of leader that still produces results, but may not be the most effective in the long run (as people are not motivated both in work and commitment).
Finally, you have the leader who connects with each member well and can drive progress, but has no longterm vision of where the group is going. These are often elected leaders who are simply picking up the past leader’s inertia.
Again, I am no where close to mastering any of these three Pillars of Leadership. However, I understand them enough now that I can continuously look at my own life and focus on improving these skillsets.
Collins emphasizes on recognizing the Brutal Facts, and a leader must understand himself well in order to constantly improve himself and the group. Lets include “understanding him/herself” in Pillar 2.