What Amazing Leaders Do Differently

In my work as a startup founder over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself surrounded by some incredible young leaders, be mentored by a few wise executives, and spend time with rockstar leadership thinkers like Jack Canfield and Sir Freeman Dyson. It’s been humbling, but awesome.

As I’ve attempted to step into the role of leader myself (along with my two fantastic cofounders), and fumbled repeatedly along the way, I’ve come to appreciate great leaders who make what turns out to be a very hard thing look easy.

Amazing leaders often do things counter-intuitively. Here are seven patterns I’ve observed in the best leaders in my life, despite the natural pressure for powerful people to do otherwise:

 

They change their minds.

One of the most courageous things a leader can do is admit when he or she is wrong, and admit it often.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said that the late Apple founder Steve Jobs was a notorious, but deliberate, flip-flopper. “I saw it daily,” Cook said in an interview with AllThingsD. “This is a gift, because things do change, and it takes courage to change. It takes courage to say, ‘I was wrong.’”

On the flip side, crappy leaders dig in their heels when they’re wrong. They’d rather assert authority than admit a mistake. But owning up to one’s faults is a greater sign of strength than the ability to stand one’s ground.

 

They absorb shock.

I recently saw Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why and presenter of one of the most widely-veiwed TED talks ever, speak about the primal/tribal origins of leadership and how they apply to us today in work and life. Historically, leaders were given special status and privilege because they were the first to face danger, the first to battle; they shielded the group from harm.

Great leaders today still do that. They absorb risk unto themselves, so others can do their best work.

As author and leadership guru John Maxwell says, “A good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit.”

 

They overcommunicate.

The best leaders confide in their followers. Whereas they shield people from danger, they also aren’t afraid to trust people with all the information. In general, people are more afraid of the unknown than they are of big scary problems. This is why death and the dark and the deep ocean can be so terrifying—we don’t know what’s out there. Knowing about the sabre-tooth tiger nearby is scary, but a great leader acknowledges it and promises to do everything she can to deal with it. Knowing there’s something wrong, but not what it is—that’s a recipe for revolt.

“One of the best things a leader can do is learn to be vulnerable,” says Charlie Kim, a CEO whose leadership philosophies I’ve written about in recent posts. “It’s what actually inspires other people, because they say, ‘This person has the same problems I have, and even worse. They had all these issues and despite all that they were able to survive, succeed.’ It drives you to do more.”

This is why I think flawed people and underdogs make some of the world’s best leaders.

 

They think before answering.

In New York City, venture capitalist Fred Wilson is one of the most sought-after investors in the technology community. (He write a fantastic blog, btw, at avc.com.) The world is full of smart investors who know how to turn a dollar into ten, and there’s no dearth of entrepreneurs who vie for such investors’ attention. But Fred’s fame comes not just from his investment record, but his thought leadership. In the few years I’ve known him, I’ve observed a peculiar—and telling—thing about him. Whereas most of us (and powerful people especially) feel pressure to have instant answers to everything (job interviews and media training teaches us to do this), causing us to blubber and ramble and shoot from the hip, Fred takes his time. When you ask him a question, he pauses. Sometimes for a long time. Sometimes the silence makes you uncomfortable. He thinks carefully. And then he responds with triple the insight you expect. The same thoughtfulness comes out in his writing as well.

(As a good editor of mine once told me, great writing is about research, writing, and thinking. Most people forget to spend a third of their time on the latter.)

This, of course, necessitates good listening skills. One of my favorite leaders in the world isIngrid Vanderveldt, Entrepreneur in Residence at Dell. Though she’s incredibly busy, when she meets you—no matter who you are—she looks you in the eyes and gives you her absolute attention. It’s almost startling to realize how distracted and self-focused many leaders are when you meet someone truly attentive like that.

 

They search for the right path; not the easy one.

Bad leaders take the easy way out. They don’t tend to lead very long.

Great leaders seek to do what’s right first, then figure out how to deal with the repercussions, rather than seeking to minimize pain and twisting their morals to suit.

This sounds like the obvious thing to do, and it is. But where a lot of great leaders differ from mediocre leaders with good intentions is in the ability to do the right thing when that thing stings someone else. (This is one of my big weaknesses.) Letting go of an employee who needs to go—even though you like them personally—takes courage. Delivering bad news to someone, correcting their actions or attitudes, can be uncomfortable, and it’s tempting as a leader to let things slide in the name of goodwill. But like a mom or dad who lets his or her kids run wild without parental correction, leaders who take the emotionally easy route often create environments that in the long run come back to bite them and their kids.

Thomas Jefferson put it well: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

 

They have sacred time for themselves.

The best leaders know that they need time for self-improvement and balance in order to be sustainably useful to their tribes. Rather than becoming martyrs for their teams, they draw firm lines around sacred alone time.

“What is good for us on a personal level… is also what is best for the world,” says Arianna Huffington, founder of Huffington Post. A notoriously powerful leader, Huffington is obsessed with, of all things, sleep. “A high IQ does not mean that you are a good leaders,” she said in aTED talk in 2010. “The way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is getting enough sleep.”

U.S. Presidents famously make exercise an essential part of their days; without it, the stress of such a job would surely be toxic. (I recently read this Vanity Fair profile of President Obama and was struck by how much time he takes for exercise every day.)

LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner applies this principle when he writes about creating white spacein leaders’ schedules, and another LI Influencer, Gary Vaynerchuk, famously starts nearly every startup sermon he gives by imploring founders to put “family first.”

 

But they’re in it for others.

Though the most effective leaders carve out sacred time for themselves, the best of the best do so because they are motivated by the desire to help other people.

Indeed, the greatest leaders are the ones everyone wants to follow, and those are the ones who care about others more than self, who lead with a higher purpose.

“No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it,” said Andrew Carnegie.

For all of us who are trying to become better leaders in work and life, these seven principles can be summed up in one sentence: Strive to bethe kind of leader you would follow yourself. (Much easier said than done!)

I’ve got a way to go yet in my own leadership development. Fortunately, I’ve got a few leaders in my life who can help.

 

What do you think?

Who are the amazing leaders you look up to?

What helps you be a better leader?

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