Defining leadership and the three most important traits a leader needs to develop to be effective

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Defining Leadership

I believe that the best quote that captures the true nature of leadership is this:

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams

Let me paint you a picture of what I believe true leadership is. Leadership is a journey. Imagine your team or company are sailing the ship on this journey. You, as the leader, provide the destination. You will define where you are, A, and where you want to get to, Z.

To get from A to Z you and the team will need to follow this path, but there may be obstacles along the way. You may face pirates, rough seas, the hull could get breached or any number of external things could happen.

Whatever event comes your way, you will adapt. You will change the course if you need to and you will even change the destination if you need to. You may have planned that to get from A to Z you need to go through B, C, H and K. Suddenly, it is way too risky to go through H and K so you will need to go through J, L, M and P instead. You will still get to Z, you are just taking a different path. What if Z is no longer the best place to go? What if someone beats you to Z? What if no customers live at Z? Well, now it is time to pivot. Change the destination. It’s time to travel to X.

To get to your destination you need a team – you cannot go it alone. You have weaknesses. There are questions you don’t know the answers to. You will need to trust your team to take ownership and do their jobs and tasks required to get you from A to Z. You will delegate and give them the freedom to make mistakes, learn and grow in their role and achieve their dreams. The journey will transform you and your team. No one will be the same person as when they started out.

From this definition of leadership, I believe that there are 3 main skills that you need to develop to become a great leader. Those skills are; strategic thinking, practising humility, empowering others.

Strategy and vision

Leadership is about being a visionary and setting a strategy. You need to be able to look ahead to where you want to take the team or business and identify the steps to get there. You need to be able to identify potential threats and other external factors, even opportunities, that may change the course of your journey. It might be that you have to pivot into a different product or take different steps to get to the end goal. You need to be able to question the vision regularly and have input from others. Is it still the right strategy? Why this and not something else? What is the probability of success or the risk of failure? The vision and strategy need to be living, breathing things that adapt alongside the world. Those who do not adapt will get left behind by their competition. The most important thing you will need to do is sell the vision. Your followers and stakeholders need to buy into the vision. They need to understand why we are taking this journey, what success looks like and why it is better than any alternative.

Selling the vision and strategy

When you are trying to sell your vision you need to get buy-in from the team and or organisation. The best way to do this is to relate to the people. You want to create what, Vanessa Van Edwards calls “me too” moments. The more “me too” moments you create, the more aligned the people will be to you and your vision.

A “me too” moment is when you are putting yourself in the shoes of the people. How will the people relate to your vision? You want to find a way of making it seem close to home. What is the problem this vision looks to solve and how do they see that problem in everyday life? How will solving it make them feel? Once you have those answers you need to identify your own experiences that align with those ideas and thoughts that will inevitably lead to your listeners saying “wow, yeah, me too!”

On a side note, Vanessa is a master human behaviour hacker that has given me some great tips to build more effective relationships and be a more effective leader. Go check out her book on Amazon (Amazon US/Amazon UK)

You can also get buy-in from people by involving them in the process of building the vision. Give people the room and time to come up with ideas and challenges for your vision. In being allowed to challenge your vision and provide their input you are actually building the vision together. However, if you are going to do this – and I suggest if you ever come up with a vision or strategy you definitely do, be careful you not to be stubborn. Ultimately you need to be willing to be fluid on your vision or strategy, understanding that in asking good questions and doing a little digging you might find a better way. You need to be willing to steer the ship a different route to get to the same destination or change the destination completely.

Adapting the vision and strategy

It can be extremely difficult to hear someone commenting on your beautiful, masterful strategy that you have crafted for the last few weeks but it is necessary. If you want to have a vision or strategy that succeeds you need to question it. You need to be willing to look at it from different angles and most importantly you need to accept uncertainty. If you haven’t already, check out my post on better decision making, here, where I go into a bit more depth on how accepting uncertainty can actually help you to make much better decisions. The point is you need to be fluid with your vision and strategy, especially today where the world keeps changing at such a regular pace. You need to be constantly reviewing it and asking is this the best way forward? What else could I be doing? Why do this instead?

On the other end of the spectrum, you do not want a vision that shifts massively every week. You want to be able to create stability in what the company is striving for. You need to balance stability with adaptability.

“You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless” – Charles de Gaulle

Note: some people distinguish between vision and strategy. A vision tends to be something that is more stable and a strategy is a fluid plan that executes according to the rules of that vision.

Finding humility

Leadership is also about showing humility. All the best CEOs, MDs and leaders around the world recognise that they do not have all the answers. They recognise what their weaknesses are and who they can bring in to make up for them. Think about Elon Musk starting SpaceX. The first thing he did was hire the best rocket scientists he could get his hands on. The best leaders will embrace uncertainty. They understand that outcomes are not absolute. This enables great leaders to dive into problems with a magnifying glass, looking for all the hidden information that can help them to make a better decision (as described in detail in this post).

The main problem here is how the media portrays a leader. A leader is seen to be powerful, strong, unwavering – someone who has all the answers. Generally, when someone thinks of a leader they don’t think of humility. Humility can be seen as weakness or to go hand in hand with lack of confidence or charisma. The truth of the matter is a leader is someone who knows they don’t have all the answers and needs to rely on others to fill in the gaps. Having the humility to do that will make you and others around you more successful.

“If you get your people capability right first…and continue to make it your first priority…I guarantee you the results will follow.” – David Novak

Humility in self-awareness

One of the most frequent bits of advice I give to leaders and clients is the importance of being self-aware. As a leader, it is critical that you spend a lot of time looking at yourself in the mirror. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? How have you performed? What mistakes have you made? What bad habits do you have? What are the triggers for your bad habits? Why did you lose your cool at Jerry? What was the trigger for that? What can you do differently tomorrow?

To be an effective leader you need to have a learning mindset. You need to always be willing to learn, grow and improve. If you stop learning you stop growing. I really love the mindset David Novak has with regards to self-reflection, check it out:

Despite being at the pinnacle of his career, Novak believes everyone must always be growing, and you can’t grow without true self-awareness. Each year, Novak takes 3×5 inch notecard and writes down one of his strengths, but also a developmental area to work on. While his passion and enthusiasm are viewed as assets, he learned that his style can “scare the hell out of everyone” and that if team members are intimidated by him, they may not be forthcoming with new ideas or differences of opinion. The 3×5 card is a physical reminder for him to be mindful of this truth.

Another powerful self-awareness exercise shared by Novak is called the “Hotshot Replacement Activity.” It’s a thought experiment where you imagine that your company decides to go out and recruit a new industry “hot shot” to take over your job. What would the new “hot shot” do that you haven’t done yet? What would they tackle with new employee enthusiasm that you haven’t had the energy for? What fresh thinking would they bring? How would they challenge norms and assumptions? Novak implored, “Be that hotshot. Make it so nobody could do your job better than you.”

Novak summarized his lessons by telling the audience that leadership is about moving “from Me to We.” And that, “Life is too short to not make yourself the best possible leader you can be.”

– Forbes article about David Novak

Humility in selflessness

“When people feel safe and protected by the organisation, the natural reaction is to trust and cooperate.” – Simon Sinek

Being a leader who expresses humility by putting others first can make you a better leader and improve your team’s productivity levels. This is often referred to a servant-leadership. You make it your priority and goal to serve and help those around you. You care for their emotional wellbeing (to learn more about how to use emotional intelligence, check this out). You care for what their motivations and values are. You align people in environments where they can learn, grow, develop and reach their goals and dreams. I just see that as leadership.

If you are interested in learning more check out Simon Sinek’s famous TED talk here. Simon also has a great book on this subject which I would recommend to any leader (check it out on Amazon US / Amazon UK).

This Forbes article also has some good points to ponder over, summarised below:

  1. Let others see you serve and encourage them to join you.
  2. Make sure they know that you care.
  3. Invest in your people.
  4. Don’t place restrictions on your willingness to serve.

This quote paints a beautiful picture of what you see when you have a truly humble leader:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

Leadership is empowerment

Leadership is about empowerment. As a leader, your role is to create opportunities for people to grow and develop on the journey to achieve your grand vision. You need to understand the values, motivations, goals and dreams of your team and how you can help them achieve them. If you empower people correctly, you allow them to run with ideas, express creativity, fail, learn from failure, learn new things and grow and develop.

Think about it. When did you feel at your best in your career? Did your boss give you opportunities to run with ideas and bring your view and creativity to the table? Or was it when your boss would manage every single thing you did and look over your shoulder or completely ignore your thoughts and ideas? I can guarantee you felt the best when you were empowered. When you had the opportunity to take responsibility for something and run with it. You were trusted enough to do it and in doing it you actually learned something new. I have had micromanagers in the past that have sat above me and it has completely destroyed my confidence in myself and in the leadership. If my boss can’t trust me to do this, does it mean I suck? Am I not good enough? Don’t let your team feel that way. It is horrible. Instead, give them opportunities and trust them.

If you are going to truly empower others you need to be OK with failure. You need to let them know that if they fail it isn’t the end of the world and that failure can be used to positively drive innovation and smarter thinking the next time you face a similar task (check out this post about how to build a good failure culture and attitude). Lead by example. How do you deal with failure? Is it out in the open? Do you ask for feedback to enable you to identify where you have failed and can improve? Does failure have a major stigma attached to it in your organisation?

One of the biggest reasons for people leaving an organisation is that they don’t have opportunities to learn, grow and develop. They stagnate. So why would they want to stick around? How can they continue to add increasing value if they don’t learn how to add more value?


This is leadership:

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams

To become an effective leader you need to focus on vision, humility and empowerment.

  1. Vision. Look forward, rally people behind you and get their buy-in. Be ready to pivot and adapt to events and a changing environment.
  2. Humility. Put the people first. Look at yourself critically through self-reflection. Lead by example.
  3. Empowerment. Give people the opportunity to “run with it” on tasks and project. Create an environment for people to learn, grow and develop. Build a healthy culture around failure.


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