A checklist for superior leadership

Far too many leaders think that their technical or operational prowess is a benchmark for success. The superior ones, however, understand the power of influence, empathy and everything else that's required for leading people.

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“The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.” – Sheryl Sandberg

Many of us live and work with self-awareness ‘blind spots’. We think we’re far better at any number of everyday tasks than we really are: driving, cooking, dancing and singing to name just a few (If you have a spare hour or two to kill, just ask my kids to describe my singing voice.)

Leadership is another one of those areas filled with too many people who suffer from self-delusions or outright blind spots regarding their abilities. And, unfortunately for many of their employees, stakeholders, customers, vendors and shareholders, these overly confident can cause lasting damage to everything from major projects to careers to stock prices.

There is hope, however. We can learn self-awareness and develop behaviors and habits that will better serve the people who depend upon us. It can and should be a life long pursuit, but here’s a checklist to help you benchmark your leadership qualities:

  1. Leaders speak to people, and not to "resources": Everyone on your team carries vulnerabilities, opinions, a need for respect, happiness and all the rest of the human character. Leaders invest the time to learn about their team. Leaders believe that their employees are as important, if not more important, than their customers.
  2. Anticipation is a super power: Have you ever played a video game with one of your kids? The game is usually over before you’ve settled into the couch. Then you get to hear, “Adults can’t compete against kids.” Why do we lose to them? Because they’ve played the game hundreds of times and can anticipate where their adversaries are lurking. Leaders make a conscious effort to study their environment and the people in it. Doing so enables them to anticipate events more consistently than the ad hoc leader.
  3. A beginner’s mindset is more powerful than a blamer’s mindset: What can your employees expect whenever a glitch occurs or they make a mistake? Do you immediately point a finger or do you approach these interactions with the intention to learn? It isn’t easy to hold back your emotions when you’re confronting a major delay in a critical project. But that’s why you’ve been entrusted with l-e-a-d-e-r-s-h-i-p.
  4. Learn to master difficult conversations: Did you know that your brain (and everyone else’s) processes social pain in the same place that it processes physical pain? The reason your employees may avoid admitting mistakes and the reason you may avoid discussions about any number of difficult topics is that everyone feels real danger in the interactions. No matter where you may fall on the empathy scale, there’s no law that says you can’t develop it – if you understand your triggers and roadblocks and make a consistent practice of improvement.
  5. Every team needs to feel psychological safety: High-performing teams can’t function without it. Those people you’re leading who always seem to achieve the impossible are able to do so because you – or your predecessor – created an environment where they felt the freedom to do what they love without the fear of small-minded finger-pointing or large-scale retribution.

And a few questions for further consideration: What separates you from the pack? Who are you learning from? Do you seek out others from whom you can learn? Mentors? Coaches? Is leadership a deliberate practice for you or a reactive, ad hoc experience?

You'll learn more about leadership from the people around you than you will from a book. A robust professional and personal network will the force multipliers in your leadership learning curve.

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