A mentor of mine–let’s call him Joe–once said that the hardest part of any high performer’s career is acquiring soft skills. Joe was referring to managing and leading others specifically. He said it would be easy for me to continue on my current path of becoming a highly skilled professional. That I could do it with my eyes shut. But would I be able to transfer that knowledge and lead others?
For the last few years I’ve been discovering the answer to that question. At first I managed one person, then no one, and now 2 people. These experiences have been the most frustrating but also most rewarding in my career development. Joe was right: transferring knowledge and leading effectively is the hardest skill to pick up.
To lead effectively, Joe told me I should always keep my calm and allow people to express themselves. He also said I should never micromanage. Rather, I should take a stance on macro supervision. This is also known as Participative Decision-Making (PDM). According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, workers need to feel a sense of belonging to an organisation. The belonging and drive can develop only when workers are given enough space to breathe and creatively solve problems.
Joe’s view on leadership was truly transformative for me. It helped me manage my first subordinate quite well, but when you’re managing multiple people you need varied tools in your leadership toolkit. So recently I’ve read and re-read some of the most valuable books on leadership you can buy today:
- Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
- Don’t Shoot The Dog by Karen Pryor
- Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
- Unbeatable Mind by Mark Divine
- Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday
- The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman
- Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal
- Magic Of Thinking BIG by David J Schwartz
- Anything You Want by Derek Sivers
If you’re eager to improve your leadership skills (and even if you’re not), here are the key nuggets of wisdom I’ve picked up from these books on leadership. I hope they help you continue to grow as an employee and as a leader.
11 Principles to Be A Better Leader
1. Listen to what others say, don’t speak for the sake of speaking.
This is also the reason why introverts tend to be highly successful business leaders. They don’t BS for the sake of expressing themselves. As a lifelong introvert who has an ability to switch into extrovert I find that the former is probably the most powerful tool when it comes to career development. I love being able to talk things of substance, as does every single person.
For extroverts and those who struggle to hear and listen to people: slow down, focus on your breathing and don’t talk. Most people tend to fret during pauses and silences, however these should be used for thinking and connecting the dots. People who talk before they think rarely create a following.
2. Forget micromanagement.
So here’s the thing: allow others to make micro decisions and inform you about them. This approach is called Participative Decision-Making (PDM) and it’s built on the principles of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs. You see, every person wants to be a part of something bigger. They want to be recognised and important – this is purely intrinsic. I’ve seen too many people who quit their jobs even though they were earning six figure sums. Why? Because they felt like a cog in a machine that has no chance of being recognised or appreciated for their effort.
Instead of micromanaging, great leaders focus on making macro decisions and shaping the vision that will drive the micro decisions.
3. Meditate and stay fit.
Mental and physical health is essential for good leaders. Making macro decisions, coming up with a greater vision and providing direction all require willpower, which in today’s world gets depleted very fast. Due to our exposure to so many inputs, every decision–be it small or impactful–will reduce your willpower and potentially reduce your ability to lead.
Meditation, eating to fuel your body and to perform are simple principles that can improve your performance. Your mind will become sharper and more calm, which your subordinates and colleagues are sure to appreciate.
4. Start with WHY.
When facing any challenge or problem, you should always communicate the bigger picture. It is too easy for managers, bosses and leaders to drift into the WHAT and HOW of the business. However what makes a team truly successful is the connection that happens when they’re all aligned on the WHY.
Think of Apple vs. Microsoft. Both are tech giants. Yet, only the former has a very strong WHY. This is the reason why their technically inferior products outperform Microsoft. Microsoft focuses on the WHAT and HOW first. Apple communicates a vision that achieves great product-market fit.
5. Cultivate positive social hormones.
Which hormones are these? In particular Oxytocin (responsible for closure, bonding) and Serotonin (responsible for pride and vision). These two hormones that are commonly labeled as happiness hormones. There’s two other ones you should note: Dopamine and Endorphin which are known to be higher in more selfish and self-centred leaders. Think of athletes, brokers from Wall Street etc. – all the people who push their bodies into survival mode where it’s on high alert and stressed a lot of the time. They push their bodies to get to the next hit, then the one after and so on… never reaching a state of calm.This is a completely opposite of what good leaders do.
How can you ensure that every team member receives a daily dose of Oxytocin and Serotonin?
- Positive reinforcement (I’ll describe it below).
- Stopping to appreciate the moment and people.
- Small talk. Those ‘annoying 5 minutes’ at the start of a meeting spent talking about babies, outings and so on , are essential for longevity and social health of the team.
- Invest into culture beyond work. This can include outings not related to work and gifts for your top performers (not too big otherwise will spike the Dopamine).
6. Lead by example.
It is extremely important to practice what you preach. This includes self discipline, good habits, thoughts and expressions.
One of the easiest ways to cultivate these values in yourself is to read books. Read eclectic material that affects your mindset. Reading will also keep you open minded and will train your idea muscle. In fact, one way to create a following is by being able to apply common ideas to unique insight that’s specific to a situation. Such insight can only happen when you’re developing new information flows regularly.
7. Take responsibility for your team as a whole.
If a person on your team fails, you’ve failed. Chances are you didn’t communicate expectations well or the WHY of the business and the business objective in particular.
In other cases leaders fail because they hire people who project ambition, but fall short of humility. These people are almost impossible to coach. Either way it is up to you to ensure that the resource you’re managing is top notch.
8. You have nothing to prove to your subordinates and everything to prove.
This is important. Your subordinates should know at all times that they are free to make appropriate decisions and inform you of them. However they should never forget the chain of command. This is because everyone will at some point face challenges that will need guidance and mentorship, so if you’ve been out of the loop this will result in friction. It usually manifests as disrespect, ignoring of commands or worse.
Be close to your subordinates, but focus on building trust and accountability–not friendships. Being friends with a subordinate can only make other subordinates feel unappreciated, it can cause friction that’s not conducive to productivity, intra-team competition and dopamine-induced ego storms.
9. Delegate and allow subordinates to take initiative.
Your subordinates and colleagues should be able to freely propose new ideas and ways of dealing with any challenge.
Even if we evolved enough to be intelligent creatures that can evaluate and project future outcomes, we still fall short when it comes to fear generating situations. Our amygdala (reptile brain) is responsible to handle fight or flight scenarios. If your subordinates or colleagues come to fear voicing their opinions, this will develop into a habit of holding things back. The constant flux of epinephrine (adrenals) and cortisol will build a culture of vultures, who fall short creatively and are wired to resist any leadership influence.
10. Coach your subordinates with positive reinforcement.
Discourage bad habits and reinforce the good ones. Based on mammalian conditioning principles animals (people included) respond to both negative and positive feedback. However the outcome is totally different depending on the feedback. For example, if you discipline a subordinate long after their mistake, they’ll link the negative response to something else thus NOT reducing the likelihood of repeating their mistake. If you praise them (reinforce with positive feedback) when they do something well, they’re more likely to repeat that behaviour again.
Allow for praise where it’s due and don’t expect it or ask for it yourself. Our ego will drive us to crave any positive feedback, while fearing the negative. However the truth is, if your subordinate performs well – you will be recognised for it too. In the end, the leader’s true job is to make sure nothing goes wrong, right?
11. Finally… Good leaders are stoic. Embrace the stoic philosophy.
You should build persistence and grit so that when things get tough, you stick through them. Stoicism ignores instant gratification, focusing instead on the bigger picture (thinking BIG) and leading team towards those long term goals. Since you’re going to be busy solving big problems, allow subordinates and colleagues to take over the smaller and more technical issues.
Will Durant once said that:
A nation is born Stoic, and dies Epicurean…
The moment social dynamics shift to Epicurean side, leaders are the first to crumble to the stress of the obstacles in their way, blows to the ego or the simple inability to let go of being in control. Then things go to nothing. Even the strongest of teams will disperse to find better, more resilient leaders.
For brain food: Check out my Stoicism starter pack here.
Bonus: Leadership Lessons From The Dancing Guy
Entrepreneur and author Derek Sivers made probably the best 3-minute video you could ever invest time in watching. Using a creative example, he gets to the gist of what makes a leader and how anyone can become a leader. I now re-watch this video almost every week. I heartily recommend it to my friends and even to my subordinates:
Books can be your mentors if you choose them wisely. I read over 50 useful books last year and I aim to do the same this year, except I’ll be sharing all of the best insights right here on the High Achiever Diet. Want to stay up to date on the best books to lead you to success?
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