Nothing really prepares you to be a leader. In most cases, you get the opportunity to lead by being good at something else. However, while being a strong performer gives you the credibility to lead, it says nothing about your ability to lead. Leadership is a skill in its own right and, for the most part, it’s one you learn on the job.
Of course, there’s no shortage of advice about being a leader. Some say that you should make decisions rationally, while others say you need to trust your gut. Just like some say that it’s important to exude confidence, while others say that it’s important to show humility. It’s all terribly confusing.
The truth is that all leaders have different styles and you’ll have to figure out what yours is. Nobody can do that for you. Still, one thing I wish somebody told me before I began leading people is what I would be required to do and how it would be different from any other job. So here’s four things you’ll need to learn in order to become a successful leader.
1. Developing Talent Is The Most Important Thing You Do
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that strong talent is important to every organization, yet it’s unlikely you’ll be able to attract better talent than your competitors. For the most part, you’ll be offering similar compensation to do a similar job. You can try and screen people as best you can, but you won’t be able to truly evaluate them until they’re already on the job.
Look at truly great organizations and you’ll find that they excel at developing — rather than just hiring — talent. The US military doesn’t really attract better talent than any other country, but the way it develops talent makes it the best fighting force in the world. Companies like GE and McKinsey are also renown for their ability to develop top talent.
So your first job as a leader is to help everyone on your team to maximize their potential. That means a lot more than just setting up training programs. It means taking an interest in the personal development of everyone on your team, even if it means that they eventually find that they are better off pursuing their dreams somewhere else.
Ironically, the best way to attract talent is to build a reputation for developing it. So if you want the best people to come work for you, the first step is to find the best in the people who are already working for you.
2. You Have To Make Decisions Others Can’t — Or Won’t
Being a leader gives you a lot of power, but the one thing you have surprisingly little power over is what decisions you will have to make, because the most important questions you will have to answer are the ones you never planned for. They will be determined by market events, customer demands, competitor moves and internal conflicts.
These are the decisions nobody wants to make, because they often have to be made with minimal information, unforgiving time constraints and serious consequences. There’s no opportunity to do a full analysis or to ask for more time, but as a leader it is your responsibility to make a decision anyway.
When I was leading an organization of 800 people, I had to make decisions like that all the time and each one was about something that not one of those 800 people — many of whom were extremely talented and intelligent — could answer on their own. I didn’t necessarily know any better than they did, but it was my job to make the decision.
In situations like that, advice like “be rational” or “go with your gut” is completely useless. You simply have to make the best decision you can and accept the consequences.
3. Sometimes You Will Make The Wrong Decision
Even more challenging than the fact that it is your job to make decisions that nobody else wants to, is the reality that a certain percentage of the decisions you make will be wrong and it will be your job to clean up the inevitable messes you make. This is simply unavoidable. Nobody gets it right 100% of the time.
When this happens, somebody will always be there to remind you that they had preferred a different option. This will be true, but meaningless, because one of the reasons you had to make the decision in the first place was that there was no clear consensus. Whatever choice you made, a lot of people were backing a different one.
This is perhaps the most important thing you have to learn to be a good leader. Being put in a position of responsibility doesn’t make you clairvoyant or endow you with any special wisdom, it just means that the consequences of your actions will be much greater than for anyone else.
Once you are able to accept that, everything else becomes easier.
4. People Follow A Mission, Not A Plan
Leaders do a lot of strategy and planning. It is simply a necessary part of the job, because people need a guide for what’s expected of them in order to operate at a high level. Still, as Steve Blank has observed, “No business plan survives first contact with the customer.” A plan never perfectly reflects reality.
In Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal describes how when first took over command in Iraq, his forces were winning every battle, but losing the war. The problem was that although his squads of commandos and intelligence analysts were performing their individual tasks with world class alacrity, they were failing to, as he put it, “see the whole system” and the greater mission was getting lost.
So his commandos would capture valuable intelligence, but it would take weeks to get it in front of an intelligence officer. Or a target would be identified, but by the time it went through the chain of command the terrorists would be long gone. He realized that rather than a better plan, he needed to build a sense of shared mission to accomplish a single goal.
The truth is that your mission defines your strategy, not the other way around. So while planning and supervising work are part of every leader’s job, they’re not what’s essential. What’s most important is providing a mission with meaning. Great leaders do not merely plan action, they inspire belief.