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6 simple truths of highly effective leadership

Woman executive

Are you a leader? Do you aspire to be one?

Leadership isn’t something that is bestowed on you by title or function; it’s something you earn by your actions, day after day after day.

A friend once told me about the small office where she worked early in her career. In a start-up, everyone needed to pitch in on the mundane tasks that keep a business running.

But her boss proved to be more dictator than leader. As he was announcing assignments at staff meetings, he would say “Someone….” Then his eyes would dart around, and he would point an imperious finger at a staff member “You! You need to go to the post office.” The way he announced the tasks was so off-putting that he lost all credibility over a relatively minor issue.

On the other hand, one of the company’s other managers decided to meet with her dictatorial colleague to find out what routine duties needed to be tended to, and then she created a rotating schedule so that tasks were no longer assigned offhandedly or sprung on anyone. By assessing the situation and fixing it, this woman became the leader whom others at the company admired.

I firmly believe that anyone can be a leader — whatever their position or role — if they display leadership characteristics and take leader-like actions. The woman described above is an excellent example.

Here are my all-time favorite leadership truths — a cheat sheet to help you achieve your leadership goals.

In leadership, one size doesn’t fit all, but you don’t have to go crazy customizing your management style for each employee.

Some people assume that an “open door policy” is essential for a leader to personally manage each person on his or her team, but constant disruptions can detract from your own work. Instead, make yourself available to your direct reports when it’s also convenient for you by setting parameters — whether it’s regular “office hours” or a standing weekly one-on-one where each member of your team can share what’s on his or her mind and solicit feedback from you. 

Stellar performance in your job function is just one facet of leadership.

Typically, only star performers are considered for leadership roles, and yes, understanding your job’s functional responsibilities — the work itself — is essential for managing the work of others. However, being good at the work of your job is just one part of leading others. To succeed as a leader, you have to develop people management skills, such as adaptability, communication, negotiation and a willingness to collaborate. If soft skills are not your strong suit, seek out coaching and training to get you up to speed. 

Good leaders communicate their preferences, instead of assuming employees are mind readers.

My number-one tip for first-time leaders is to teach your employees how best to work with you. Harvard Business School Professor Michael Watkins writes about “the style conversation” in one of my favorite books, The First 90 Days.

Of course, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been a leader for nine years or 90 days, it’s never too late to share with your team nuances, such as whether you prefer longer or shorter emails, or daily or weekly updates. The important thing is to teach people how to report to you. Smart leaders also know this can be a two-way street: Finding out your employees’ communication and work style preferences can enhance your working relationship all around. 

Authentic leaders are honest about their tough times. 

Kevin Hart. Chris Rock. Amy Schumer. Jerry Seinfeld. Sarah Silverman. All are luminaries in the field of comedy, which makes it hard to imagine that they, too, have suffered through miserable failures. But, in a fascinating documentary, “Dying Laughing,” they laid bare their lows.

I found myself admiring these stars even more because they were open and honest about the fact that everybody bombs. You’ll be more approachable as a leader if you’re willing to share your tough times — your humanity — with your team.

Leaders bring others along — but mentoring doesn’t have to be a full-time job.

Busy professionals often find it challenging to create time for “traditional” mentoring, where you regularly take a mentee to coffee or lunch to help with the younger colleague’s career. Another option is to consider “reverse mentoring” or “reciprocal mentoring,” where, perhaps, a Baby Boomer exec asks the junior person her questions about Snapchat or Slack, and the junior person gains professional etiquette insights from his more experienced counterpart. Leaders are always learning, even when they are providing advice to others.

If you’re not an effective leader, you will lose your best people (of any age).

Truth: All generations appreciate good bosses. We spend a lot of time considering what Millennials want in a boss, but the great news is that longtime leadership best practices are as effective as ever in the multigenerational workplace.

Members: Post your comments in our NEW Member Community.

Lindsey Pollak is an expert on the Millennial generation and author of Becoming the Boss and a popular blog.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.