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What is Leadership, Anyway? Plus 5 Lessons From Top Leaders

  • Good leadership is impossible to define because it’s unique — like a thumbprint. It’ll look different person to person, team to team and company to company.
  • Although you can’t define leadership, you can learn by example. Zappos and Basecamp are two companies that have strong leaders who’ve embraced unique approaches to leadership.
  • In speaking with some top leaders, key takeaways begin to emerge. For one, being vulnerable is key to establishing trust within your team.

There is no single “right way” to lead. In fact, defining leadership is impossible.

A quick Google search illuminates this idea. You’ll find a generic definition of “leadership.” Then you’ll scroll through billions of articles attempting to untangle the concept and explore exactly what good leadership looks like.

“The best definition I found for leadership was, ‘Leadership means to lead,’” Jeffry Caudle, co-founder of NeuroDash, a business process management system, says on an episode of The BOLD Business Podcast.

“A lot of people don’t really understand what leadership is because the definitions are not clear at all. The leader determines what success looks like for the team. They’re the one who defines success. Then the team puts together the objectives. You give your team autonomy,” he explains.

Caudle’s idea of leadership gets to the core of this concept: Good leadership is unique. It looks different for every single person, every single team and every single organization. Even so, there are ways to better understand good leadership.

Examples of Good Leadership

One of the best ways to understand good leadership is through case studies. Take a look at these two success stories:

  1. Zappos is known for its exceptional customer service. The company has achieved this standard through its customer-centric mission and culture. Zappos’ CEO set this standard early on, and its employees have followed.
  2. Basecamp, a project management and team communication software, exists to help teams have uninterrupted time, and its product’s mission seeps into its company culture. The founders of Basecamp have decided it’s better to be effective — not busy — so they encourage their employees to take the space they need to think and operate without interruptions.

As you can see, a company’s culture plays a large role here, and leadership can help define those standards. As you explore other leadership case studies, you can pick up on additional common threads.

However, keep in mind good leadership is unique, so you can’t just employ “best practices” from other leaders and hope it works for you. It’s all about exploring and ultimately defining what good leadership looks like for you.

Leadership Lessons From The Trenches

Although leadership approaches are unique, you can learn from the way other companies operate and the way other leaders lead. In interviewing top leaders, here are some leadership insights that emerged.

1. Connect on a Human Level

On only his second or third day of a new job, Terry “Starbucker” St. Marie’s boss asked him to fire a dozen or so people. He hadn’t met many of these people, and yet he was informing them they’d been let go. He was stuck doing the boss’s dirty work, and he fumbled through.

The unpleasant experience left a huge impression on St. Marie, who’s now a leadership consultant and was named one of the top 100 leadership and management experts by Inc. He now practices what he calls “human leadership,” which emphasizes the importance of creating human connections.

“It’s making a personal connection with other people, and you can’t do that as a leader who typically sits on a pedestal, especially as you rise higher and higher in an organization,” he says.

After more than three decades in the business world, St. Marie had approximately 1,100 people in his department. Even then, he made a point to know the names of every single person.

“I felt like that connection was important because people want to be connected to something bigger than themselves,” he says. “I opened up, I made it more personal, I asked them to trust me, I listened to what they had to say.”

2. Establish Trust By Being Vulnerable

Putting yourself out there takes vulnerability, and sometimes that can feel uncomfortable, but it’s one way to become a great leader. You have to be willing to say, “I need help,” or “I don’t know everything.”

Amy Charity, an author and speaker who spent more than 15 years in the corporate world, believes every leader needs to be surrounded by a small group of trusted individuals.

“There are going to be a handful of people you really can trust, and you can trust to be a bit vulnerable,” she says.

You also have to be willing to step into the unknown.

“It’s going to get uncomfortable,” Amy says. “You have to be willing to step into a place that you’ve never been. It doesn’t feel good. It’s usually awkward … The whole point of it is when you come out the other side, that’s when you experience true fulfillment in my mind.”

Caudle supports this sentiment.

“If you’re willing to be dumb, if you’re willing to ask the questions, you will find that is when the best of you shines,” he says.

3. Create a Higher Level of Purpose

It’s important for humans to feel a higher level of purpose or connection — people need a reason to get out of bed every morning and go to work.

St. Marie created this within his team by establishing a mantra, or what many would call a mission statement. He required all his employees to know it, and he posted it on bulletin boards, and he repeated it as he passed team members in the hallway.

It was simple: “Serve our customers, and support each other.”

He built a framework that everyone could work under, and he saw evidence of this mantra seep into meetings as well as employee and customer interactions.

“Once they know if I do these things — if I try to grow the customer base … and support each other — guess what? I’m going to be happy,” St. Marie says. “I’m going to love getting out of bed in the morning and do this job. Boom. That’s it.”

This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to build these frameworks and systems, but establishing a higher level of purpose for your employees is important.

4. Find Simplicity

Basecamp, one of the companies used as an example used above, is all about employee effectiveness. It wants to give its employees what they need to be effective — not busy.

As a leader, it’s important to help your employees find simplicity — help them remove any barriers that are preventing them from effectively doing their jobs.

“When we talk about breaking down our goals and setting an objective, we need to make sure we’re reducing the number of steps so the goal is as clear as day,” Caudle says. “And that’s part of what simplicity is about, and that’s part of what transparency is about.”

As a leader, you’re a system designer. As the company grows, it becomes more complex. Think about the game of telephone. You pass a message along person to person. By the time you’re at the end of the line, the message sounds nothing like the original. The job of a leader is to make sure the message stays intact.

“And so bringing that simplicity back to teams is really critical.” Caudle says. “Trust is simplicity. And trust is clarity. Trust is transparency. And it’s proximity.”

5. Continue Evolving and Growing

Leaders must continually evolve and grow in their roles. Inevitably, you will experience uncomfortable situations along the way — ones you find yourself fumbling through. Those should be seen as an opportunity to continue to grow. While reflecting on the challenge, ask yourself:

  • How clear were you in setting priorities?
  • Were you transparent in what it’d take to achieve these priorities?
  • How did the result align with your expectations?

Leaders learn by trial and error — even St. Marie, who has decades of experience, is still striving to refine his leadership skills.

“You can never stop learning about this,” he says. “Because just like a thumbprint, every human is different. Every situation is different, and what you learn with repetition and time is that while there are differences, there are patterns.”

Want to learn more about good leadership? See what else Caudle, St. Marie and Charity had to say on the topic in our podcast episode, “Good Leadership is Ongoing Work.” Don’t forget to subscribe to The BOLD Business Podcast for more insights on leadership and success.

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