Twenty-One Tips to Be an Effective Leader

Payson Hall writes that effective leadership boils down to a few common sense principles. In this article, he assembles twenty-one tips toward becoming (and remaining) an effective leader. Some of the tips include prioritizing, being transparent, and allowing honest mistakes.

I just finished the book, Work like a Spy: Business tips from a former CIA officer by J.C. Carleson. Her book offers an interesting perspective on business and leadership from the viewpoint of a former CIA station agent. She suggests the number one attribute of a CIA field officer is integrity. Interesting read because she did time in the CIA as well as the private sector, so she has a broader view of business and leadership than most. It was an OK book, but there wasn’t much new hiding in there.

I try to read a new book about leadership every year or so, looking for new ideas and giving myself a booster shot. There are a few classics I recommend: Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and Jerry Weinberg’s “Becoming a Technical Leader” should be on your shelf/iPad/Kindle right now and read every couple of years. But, if you want the Cliff’s notes for effective leadership, it boils down to a few common sense principles that you can get from a short article, and you can look to those books for richer context, examples, and information.

In that spirit, here is an assemblage of twenty-one tips toward becoming (and remaining) an effective leader.

1. Prioritize
Understand what is important; tell your team members. Explain your rationale so that they can prioritize in your absence. With experience, your team should know how you would prioritize a situation most of the time.

2. Don’t Shoot the Messenger
If people expect punishment when they deliver bad news, they will stop bringing you bad news. Do you think bad things will stop happening or will people just stop telling you about them?

3. Be Transparent
Avoid information hiding. If you play your cards face up on the table people can accuse you of misplaying the hand, but not cheating.

4. Don’t Pose Enemies
Most people are trying to do their best with the situation as they understand it. Few people are actively trying to thwart you. If you assume people are trying to be helpful and try to imagine how you might interpret their actions as being supportive, it is easier to understand and forgive “difficult” people—maybe they are just missing key information. On the other hand, if you assume people who oppose you are your enemies, you often close the door to constructive discussions and resolutions.

5. Recognize and Acknowledge Both Hard Work and Results
A common management wisdom mistake is giving guidance to only honor results (“This isn’t the self-esteem little league where everyone gets a trophy!”). If people are digging holes or making widgets, evaluate them solely on results. When people are engaged in challenging problem solving or creative activity and occasionally go down the wrong rabbit hole looking for a solution, honor their effort. If someone spends a weekend they could have been with their family hunting bugs in your software system, honor the sacrifice.

6. Allow Honest Mistakes
If people know you don’t sweat honest errors, they are more likely to let you know when they make one. If a team owns its errors, it can look for process improvement and hopefully avoid similar mistakes in the future. A great way to model this behavior is to admit your own errors.

7. Don’t Tolerate Sabotage
An honest mistake is one made, not knowing that it will result in failure or won’t deliver results. Sabotage is intentional error, or intentionally causing someone else to make an error—like withholding information you know is important from a team member. Saboteurs undermine the team and poison morale; get rid of them quickly.

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