Innovation

What Does It Mean to be a 21st Century Leader?

People often have different ideas of what makes a good leader. The definition of a leader, to me, is someone who empowers others to be all that they can be. They must bring out the best in people and help them realize their potential, including how to pursue their own ideas for solving problems. It is crucial as a leader to empower your employees, teach them how to be an A-Player, have great communication with them, and have empathy for one another. 

“Don’t Measure My Performance, Teach Me How to Get an A.” – Garry Ridge

For example, Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40 here in San Diego, wrote a book, “Helping People Win At Work.” Though this is a strong title, the subtitle is really what was memorable “Don’t Measure My Performance, Teach Me How to Get an A.” I really love that because most leaders obsess over measuring performance; typically with KPIs or OKRs. In many organizations, performance reviews or quarterly, at best. Teaching someone how to get an ‘A’, however, is an ongoing process.

Should You Only Hire “A-Players?”

Of course, you might believe in the well worn startup myth: only hire “A-players.” If anybody’s looked at a bell curve, you know how many A-players there are out in the world. The responsibility of a great leader is to create A-players. It’s to teach people how to get an A.

Sometimes it is possible to be good at what you do, but you may be bad at working for somebody while doing it. I’m often asked why I left my career to start my own business and I answer, “because I was a bad employee.” I wanted to do things my own way. I legitimately thought my ideas were better and felt like I should be able to pursue what I thought was best. Afterall, wasn’t that why I was hired?

Does that mean, then, that I was not an  “A-player?”

Say you’re a founder of a young startup and you hire a software engineer who is a bona fide A-player. She is entrepreneurial and just writes mad code. Then, after the startup succeeds, suddenly she finds that she has three or four layers of management above her and she hates it because it’s not an environment she likes. She’s now told what to do instead of being allowed to exercise her creativity and problem solving skills.

She’s not happy and her performance suffers. Is she no longer an A-player? What happened? As a leader, you must ask yourself, “Are you putting people into the right position where they can thrive? Are they in the best environment where they are doing their best work?” Of course, it’s possible that over the course of time that they’re simply no longer a good fit. But, as a leader, it’s your responsibility to do all you can do to figure out what’s best for everyone.

Why Is Communication So Important?

So much of being a great  leader centers around communication. Communication is a large struggle that, to be honest, I find difficult even inside my own company. I know the behavior I would like to see, but often don’t see the results. It’s likely a failure in my communication.

As a leader, it’s on you to work to be a better listener.

 For example, I do a lot of writing and the correct usage of words is important to me. I take people at their word. Unfortunately, most people have a tough time saying what they mean and meaning what they say. As a leader, it’s on you to recognize that and work to be a better listener. Try to understand what people are truly getting at and help them articulate it. Parrot back to them what you understand. This is pretty standard empathy work, to be honest.

When communicating and listening to what employees have to say, I often find as though they need me more than they do. Most of the time, they already have all of the tools they need to succeed. I must teach them how to unleash the power that they already have within. I don’t mind them asking my advice , but what’s between my ears might not be helpful. If asking me slows them down, then it becomes a problem. I’d much rather someone try and make a mistake, then not try, waiting for my approval. That teaches them nothing. But again, it’s on you as the leader to provide a sense of safety for people to act on their own volition and communicate the expected behavior.

Developing Empathy Is Important

It’s interesting that leaders are often taught how to develop empathy for their people, but not the other way around. In other words, developing empathy for your leaders is important, too. Understanding their background and experiences will help you understand their world view and why they make the decisions they do. Learning what keeps them up at night will help you understand their priorities. There’s actually a selfish aspect of developing empathy: you can learn how to better navigate your relationships. 

Just as you must teach people how to be empowered, you also must teach them how to develop empathy.

Just as you must teach people how to be empowered, you also must teach them how to develop empathy; especially when doing so for more senior people. Hierarchy is a natural impediment to developing empathy because of the power dynamic. 

I often hear from corporate innovators, “How can I get leaders to buy-in?” My question is, “how do you know they’re not bought in?” People assume leaders aren’t bought into their initiative, because they didn’t get funding. Naturally, if the leaders understood the issue they’d fund, right? You don’t know if you don’t ask. Just as if the leaders were customers, developing empathy for them includes understanding why people do what they do. 

Being a leader embodies so many skills and mindsets that you have to pay attention to. You need to empower your employees and help them unleash the power they already have. It is crucial to communicate and help teach employees how to become A-Players to help build your company from the ground up. Keep in mind that it is up to you to find the best role for each individual in your company instead of grouping them all together. If you can execute these qualities, then you have what it takes to create success.