Having spent a lot of time with entrepreneurs through EO, my personal angel investing, and playing poker with a bunch of them, I’ve found some consistent lessons that are useful for folks who are looking to improve their leadership skills. It’s strange, but they seem to be oxymorons. Here are some lessons that have challenged me:
1. The best leaders seem to have a strong enough ego that they don’t need the recognition and can easily pass all the credit to a team member or team. They see the big picture and the vision of where the company is going, but realize that they do not need to take the credit. They actively seek out recognition and use it to motivate their team and are content with pushing the spotlight on everyone else. The converse is true as well, they can and are willing to take criticism and deflect it from the team. They possess an ego that doesn’t need stroking and can take punches when necessary. You’d think a leader would want to take credit, but the opposite is true.
2. Leaders rarely have to dictate. They surround themselves with competent and motivated people. They attract the best talent. The best leaders lead by asking questions and allow the team to own the answers and the ideas. They realize dictation rarely secures buy-in. They allow team members to arrive at the same conclusion that they’ve already arrived at. This is such a difficult skill, but the most effective leaders are capable of leading their team to own their ideas. You’d think a leader would have the best ideas and dictate every action their team members should make, but the opposite is true.
3. Effective leaders aren’t looking to be served, they are looking to serve. They realize by enabling team members to succeed and removing roadblocks scales the business significantly. Helping team members realize their own personal goals motivates them to do things beyond their potential. Giving and serving are passionate drivers for the most successful CEO’s. You’d think a leader would be looking to be served, but the opposite here is true as well.
4. Leaders let people go. There are people that just aren’t a great fit, most leaders try to adjust, motivate, and invest in the poor performers or the unmotivated. The best leaders adjust, motivate, and invest in the best performers realizing that companies scale on the backs of the best performers. I have a tough time with this as I build human relationships - friendships - and it’s often difficult to make the move of letting them go. More often than not, the poor performers will find relief that they are let go so that they can pursue something that is more meaningful or within their skill set. The best leaders let go of poor performers quickly and invest the majority of their time on the best performers. You’d think the best leaders are capable of turning around poor performers, when in reality, they are the best at getting the most out of their best performers.
5. Leaders are humble. I love interacting with CEO’s that are always trying to learn, pushing themselves to improve personally and reinventing themselves. I’m always thirsty to learn something new from a restaurant waiter to a first-time entrepreneur to a retired businessman. The more I’m involved in businesses, the more I realize that I don’t know. Meeting an entrepreneur in El Salvador who has no education, no strong upbringing, and leading a successful business is extremely humbling and inspirational. The best leaders know they still have a lot to learn. Knowing that you don’t know much is always a good place to be in becoming an effective leader. You’d think a leader knows everything, in actuality, the best leaders realize they are always in need of more knowledge.
I realize that there are successful leaders that do exactly the opposite of what I’ve described, but I’d argue the majority of successful entrepreneurs that I’ve had the privilege of meeting with have many of the traits that I’ve described above. Do you agree? What other traits do you see in successful leaders?