- Michael Thompson
When I started my first job my dad gave me an extremely valuable gift: the leadership notes he had logged over the course of his 50-year military career, during which time he managed organizations and trained today’s leaders. These notes served him and his students well. Years later, they’ve done the same for me and my clients.
The circumstances differ from my dad’s. However, the leadership lessons laid out in his notes transcend the military and are just as relevant to entrepreneurs, and anyone who leads, as to military personnel.
His notes run deep. However, over the years I’ve studied them in order to find consistencies. Below are 7 of the traits that show up time and time again when it comes to being a leader worth following.
1. Be precise in all forms of communication
The best leaders are often great simplifiers. They’ve learned that people have far more to do, read, and listen to, than time in the day. As a result, they’ve taken great strides to learn how to take complex ideas and arguments and distill them down into simple language.
One way to practice this is by reducing a full-page memo to half a page and then getting the message down to the size of a notecard. When it comes to communication one hundred well-focused words beat a thousand every time.
2. Give others room to grow into their potential
Collaboration, innovation, and creative thinking all hinge on one word: trust. Great leaders embrace the logic of General George Patton: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their ingenuity.”
Stepping aside once directions are given and providing team members with space to explore isn’t easy. However, empowering others is always the right thing to do. It not only creates growth opportunities for individuals and builds confidence as a team. It also ensures the leader’s legacy is preserved because their team will be more motivated than ever to finish what was started, with or without them.
3. Own up to your mistakes and move forward
We all make mistakes. However, upon making one, a leader worth following accepts the blame, apologizes, buries the worry, and then they put all of their energy into their next objective.
They do this because experience has taught them that the biggest impediment to progress is allowing themselves to get stuck in the past. For this reason, the best leaders only focus on the present facts and refrain from getting caught up in finished actions that lay outside of their control.
4. Ruthlessly seek out blindspots
Leadership is a constant work in progress. One of the ways strong leaders continually push forward is by opening themselves up to criticism and surrounding themselves with others who challenge their way of thinking.
What do you think? Where did I go wrong? How can we get it right the next time? Great leaders ask these questions and listen attentively to a variety of opinions in order to learn about different perspectives and better identify things they may have missed.
5. Reprimand in private and praise in public
No one is immune to failure, and great leaders know that publicly shaming a fellow team member when things go south, serves no one. In fact, experience has taught them that oftentimes it can do more damage than the initial misstep.
On the flipside when things are going well, great leaders recognize that personal gain and attention jeopardizes not only trust but also bigger picture goals. So instead of seeking the spotlight, they cast the light onto team members who could use the boost.
6. Contain your fears and learn from them
Like most people, great leaders are not immune to fears of the unknown. The difference is that they consciously and consistently work towards controlling and learning from them.
Changing the world isn’t easy. It takes guts. Great leaders, despite being scared like the rest of us, embrace the importance of Andrew Jackson’s words: “One man with courage makes a majority.” As a result, instead of succumbing to their environment, great leaders take the reigns and proactively create the change they seek to make.
7. Reserve time for self-reflection
You cannot be an effective leader is you aren’t taking the daily steps to become more self-aware. When it comes to improving in this area one exercise shows up repeatedly when studying history’s greatest leaders: journaling.
What went well today? What didn’t? What did I learn? How can I improve? On a daily basis, great leaders ask themselves these questions and put their thoughts down on paper to ensure their mistakes today are not repeated tomorrow.
Every time I read back over my dad’s notes I feel an extreme sense of pride. He not only had the discipline to take notes on how to become a better leader, but he also embodies the principles above.
He reserves time for self-reflection and learns from not only his mistakes but also from those who came before him. He forgives himself and others easily while treating each day as a learning opportunity.
But most of all, my dad is trustworthy. There have been times when our relationship has been difficult. But no matter our disagreements I never once doubted that he didn’t have my back.
In the process, he taught me the true definition of leadership: Taking care of your own and giving them the power to one day take care of others.