In Good Times and Bad, Great Leaders Do This


When I’m asked what makes a great leader, there are a few things that come to mind. Great leaders possess a level of emotional intelligence that allows them to rally their executives and workers around a vision. Great leaders need to have an ego, but it’s a balancing act: too little ego and they’ll struggle to lead a team well, but too much ego and their effectiveness will wane. And finally, all great leaders are simplifiers — they take the complex and make it simple so people can easily understand where they need to go.

With all that said, there are myriad situations in which leaders find themselves where these inner strengths must be flexed and sometimes stretched. I’ve listed out a few below.

When in conflict

The first thing great leaders do is focus on their desired end result. It’s easy to get derailed and get into a counter-conflict environment. This is the time when all leaders need absolute clarity around what they want to accomplish.

When on top of the mountain

Fight to avoid complacency. Celebrate the success and then focus on how to move to the next level. I’m a huge believer that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. The top of the mountain can be a very seductive place, and if you allow yourself to park in it, that’s when the seeds of a downturn are often planted.

When their teams are unmotivated

Dig to understand why. Where was the disconnection between vision and buy-in? Something happened. Was it something the leader did? Did the environment cause the disconnect? Somewhere along the line, a change occurred that wasn’t detected and actions weren’t taken. Find out what caused that, and then learn how to counter it.

When their teams are achieving great results

Celebrate. Great leaders make their teams feel appreciated. And then they work with people to say, “How can we become even better?” Great leaders pause, celebrate and then focus on those next steps.

When their vision is waning

Great leaders ask themselves, “Is this the proper vision? Have I completely connected with that vision, or is this something the analysts or board members are telling me to do? Is this something I believe at a gut level?”

When their team feels disconnected from purpose or vision

Start peeling those layers of the onion. Great leaders ask, “Was my team connected to the vision at one point in the past, or have they never connected?” They explore whether their team understands the vision. Did they buy in, and if they did buy in at one point, what happened?

When they walk in the front door

Great leaders demonstrate being human. They talk to and acknowledge people they pass by in the hallways. They let people know that they care. They find ways to help people know from firsthand experience that they’re human and approachable. Great leaders want to be seen as a person, not a title or that scary man or woman who sits in the corner office.

When it’s time to ask for help

Great leaders test to see if they’re being effective, clear in their strategy and getting the results they need. They’re always looking for their own blind spots and will find people around them who see things they don’t. If it’s time to ask for help, great leaders reach out to a trusted advisor who can tell them what they might be missing.

When making big organizational changes

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Great leaders who are making organizational changes always keep this top of mind: no one will listen to anything you’re saying until they understand how the changes personally affect them.

When hiring new leadership

Great leaders make sure new members of leadership know what “finished” looks like. They are crystal clear in their expectations. They align authority with responsibility; great leaders don’t send a new person into an executive role with one hand tied behind their back. They make sure communication with new leadership is a two-way street and invite their team members to ask questions so they can confidently understand and relay what they heard.

When they’ve made a mistake

Great leaders will admit it. They will immediately regroup and address the mistake and move forward. Within mistakes, there are often many shades of gray, depending on magnitude, timing and the impact the mistake had on the business. Great leaders know that if they don’t admit their mistakes, they risk losing a huge amount of organizational influence.

Who Do You Turn To?

Have you ever found yourself in one, some or all of these situations? If so, I hope you had someone to turn to. As an executive coach, I know my clients can experience these and other scenarios at any given time, which is why we have a few key areas of mutual understanding:

  1. As their coach, I’m here to provide safe accountability. Our relationship is confidential. I’m not here to punish or reprimand them like a board of directors or outside investors might do. In challenging times, my role is to point them toward both their personal and professional aspirations and help them make the necessary behavioral changes to move forward.

  2. In light of that safe accountability, I often operate as a sounding board.

  3. I’m only one part of their inner circle. I’m not their decision maker. Great leaders know that having trusted advisors is important, but they also balance that with remaining open to dialogue and ideas from beyond their trusted advisors.


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