4 Tips to Becoming a Leader People Want to Follow

Readers (of this blog) make leaders — if they take this to heart

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

I saw a “Dilbert” cartoon by Scott Adams that depicted the “pointy-haired boss” considering how he might demonstrate his leadership. He then announced that the employees would participate in an “‘iron man’ team building competition.” (In the late 1990s, team building outings and obstacle courses were in fashion; physical experiences or trials were thought to encourage people to work together as a team.)

In response to the boss’s announcement, Dilbert says, “What a bunch of leadership!” (I’m sure he was thinking of another word to express his true feelings. See the comic strip yourself here.).

So what might have distinguished Dilbert’s boss as a leader, not “just” someone in management? How might you distinguish yourself as a leader? Or, rather, be a leader no matter your role?

True leadership is often characterized as having particular traits — perhaps characteristics such as being cool-headed, visionary, courageous, a good communicator, inspiring, empathetic, humble, and transparent. Other traits include decision-making, creativity, confidence, and resiliency.

Unfortunately, a lot of people out there have all these good characteristics and more (and maybe even the role of manager) — but they can’t lead people.

How to lead people

Leading people is an art, and few seem to master the ability to manage and motivate others. Leading others requires motivational skills, comprehensive listening capabilities, and an understanding of behaviors (among the many other traits previously mentioned).

But the point I want to make here is this: The key to success in ANYTHING is based on your ability to lead.

It’s true! Think about it. Your overall success in your job, in life, in relationships, in every endeavor is dependent on your strength in guiding, managing, motivating and leading other people.

Sure, you can have a product that basically sells itself (although they never do sell themselves), but you will need to convince people to design, build, package, and ship that product for you. You can have an awesome services business as well, but you will have to manage clients, motivate customers, and convince everyone that you’re the service to hire and that you are a leader in your field.

It’s the people in your career, in your business, and in your life that make the difference. So the true key to success is in leading those people — either directly or by association, media, or message. To that point, here’s a few basic principles to managing and leading others:

1. Be willing to do anyone’s job, anywhere, anytime!

Even when I was a VP of a large corporation, I sat at the front door reception desk when the receptionist was out. The CEO — and the chair of the board — and my coworkers and those who reported to me all noticed I was not afraid to be a receptionist. It made them feel better that the “boss” was willing to do the job.

It makes a huge impact on your employees when you value their job enough to actually do their job. It demonstrates value to them, and it encourages and motivates them to see you as a leader. It shows them that what they do is important, not only to others, but to YOU as a manager or leader. It’s a good feeling when the boss recognizes your value proposition.

2. Learn to listen purposefully!

It drives me crazy when I go to someone’s office to speak with them, and when I sit down, they stay on their computer, or cell phone, or they get constantly interrupted. (I love the folks who turn around to look at their computer screen every time their email program goes “Ding!”) It’s fairly obvious THEY AREN’T FOCUSING ON ME, so I conjecture that what I have to say is obviously unimportant to them.

Stop everything — close the laptop, put away the phone — and actively listen. You may think you’re multitasking, but, far worse, you’re multi-ignoring what I have to say. Listen to your people; stop everything; close the laptop, put down the pen — and just listen. You will be a better leader for it, and you’ll gain the respect and admiration of those who notice that you feel they are important enough to listen to when they speak.

3. Encourage, encourage, encourage!

I took ballroom dancing for many, many years. (Full disclosure: For the first year my wife MADE me take it, but I caught on!) I remember one teacher — my favorite teacher — in particular. When I was “a little off” on my steps (OK, a LOT off), he would smile and say, “Well, that’s one way of doing it, but let’s look at another way,” or he would say, “Well, that’s an interesting variation on the step; let’s learn another way of doing it.”

He never moaned or yelled or even told me I was incorrect. (He may have cried a few times, but he was good at hiding it.) He never had a harsh word for me. He consistently encouraged me to do the “right thing in the right way.”

He made me feel so good about what I was doing, I would do anything for him — and your employees will react the same way to positive reinforcement, rather than negative discouragement. Encourage them. Send them positive emails, personal notes, and acknowledge their contributions. I promise you, it will pay off!

And in conjunction with #3 above:

4. Give them recognition

I’m not going to get into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs here. (See? I did pay attention in that psych class.) But recognition is a big deal in motivating people. In fact, people remember being recognized above being paid more.

That’s not something I made up. Many studies have shown that recognition and appreciation of your employees are key motivators, and these actions help promote loyalty and job satisfaction. Employees love to be noticed, and they love to feel their contributions are part of the greater plan to improve things.

Admit it! You’re the same way! Who doesn’t like to be told they’re doing a great job and be recognized so they feel appreciated? Over my (yes, quite lengthy) career, I’ve noticed the recognition phenomenon.

One particular example was a year when I was VP of sales at a medical diagnostics company. We had our annual sales meeting with all managers and reps to announce a new product available for sale from a company in Germany.

That company (in cooperation with our company) was offering an all-expense paid trip for two for managers, reps and support reps to go to “Oktoberfest” in Munich, Germany. Our company would award the team members — the district sales manager, the direct sales representative, and the tele-sales representative — who sold the most of the new product.

I can tell you that the entire sales force talked about that contest for years, and they all remembered who won the contest each year. They didn’t talk about their raise that year or their bonus from four years ago. They talked about the RECOGNITION received (for years and years!). It is a big deal to give — and receive — recognition for your efforts.

Is there more to leadership? Of course, there is. You need the ability to make decisions and face up to the consequences; the understanding and acceptance of risk; the willingness to be vulnerable and allow others to be vulnerable with you; but, also, the strength to shoulder the responsibility of being a leader.

“A good leader knows how to manage; but a manager doesn’t always have what it takes to lead,” my first boss told me at the beginning of my (yes, lengthy) career. It sounded strange to me, but the older I get, the more it makes sense. Dilbert’s boss may have had the title, but he wasn’t a leader, despite his attempt to demonstrate his leadership.

Being “put in charge” of people doesn’t make you a leader, but it gives you the opportunity to lead. Take that opportunity, bearing in mind the principles listed above, and lead the way.

Mark S Long has long experienced the intricacies of business incubation, acceleration, coworking spaces, makerspaces and other entrepreneurial assistance venues. UF Innovate supports an innovation ecosystem that moves research discoveries from the lab to the market, making the world a better place.

Originally published at the IncubatorBlogger on January 12, 2021.


4 Tips to Becoming a Leader People Want to Follow was originally published in The Startup on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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