How Focusing on Humans Will Make You a Better Leader

Leadership is tough! With these 7 tweaks to your thinking you can start on a path of righteousness and becoming a real leader that people will follow to the ends of the earth and back. Spoiler alert: it’s all about humans!

If the Ramones were able to hold a beat, these guys should too. 1–2–3–4!

I’ve been in different leadership and management positions for about a decade now. I’ve never received any formal training on it, so I’ve had to figure things out by trial and error along the way.

One of the most critical things in my growth has been people who’ve shared their successes and mistakes candidly. Either in person or online.

I want to make sure I pay that forward, and this list is my humble attempt at just that.

I’d like to think of myself as an above average leader, so hopefully this list is useful you. My direct reports, past and present, are naturally allowed to disagree, but if there’s one thing they should all know is that I appreciate candid and honest feedback. You know how to reach me.

It’s just pulling on a damn rope, how hard can it be?

1. It’s not About You, it’s About Them

The first thing every leader needs to learn about leadership is that it’s the art of persuasion. The problem with that is that there are as many variations of what works as there are humans.

There’s absolutely no way to be an effective leader by applying one-size-fits-all methodologies and silver bullets. You need to understand the hopes, dreams, motivations, triggers and passions of the people you hope to persuade, to really know what they need from you to rally around your cause.

2. Hard Conversations are Incredibly Hard (but Absolutely Critical)

This has been my personal struggle since day #1. Yet it’s the hallmark of any great leader.

Anyone can lead in fair weather. It’s the easiest thing in the world.

Leading in turbulent times stemming from external factors is challenging, but still doable. At least you get to rally people around the challenges thrown your way.

What really separates the elite from the rest is their ability to rectify internal problems: An unmotivated team member, unwanted behavior or interpersonal conflict.

I’m not there yet. I don’t think I’ll ever fully be. But I know this weakness and I keep challenging myself on it. Everyone should.

Being able to bring down the hammer when needed without hesitation is critical. Letting problems linger also lets them fester. They almost never go away on their own.

Don’t push off hard conversations. They will only get worse further down the line and you risk exposing yourself to even worse issues as a result.

3. The People Under You Are Actually on Your Shoulders

Org charts and traditional hierarchical thinking have set things up wrong. The people “under” you are not your pawns — you are their servant!

Your job is not to sit on top of them and tell them what to do. Your job is to set them up for success and get out of the way. When you do your job really really well, you pretty much become redundant.

My former boss and Greatist CEO, Derek Flanzraich, liked to refer to it as “the inverted pyramid”. The higher up you are in the traditional org chart, the lower you are on the inverted pyramid. The CEO carries the entire company on their shoulders.

You serve your people by giving them air support. You feed them information, you gently guide them into preventing mistakes (although sometimes you need to let them make some), you advocate for them, and you make sure they have what they need to execute.

Not my swear jar. It’s the proverbial “invest in people” jar.

4. Invest in People and They’ll Invest in You

Are you the kind of manager that treats loops, development talks, 360 feedback and stuff like that as “bullshit HR is making me waste time on”?

Time to wake up.

As a manager, you need to be actively engaged with the people you manage to know where they want to go in their lives and be able to position their current responsibilities on their path towards those goals.

I can guarantee you they will pay that back in spades. A person who clearly visualizes what they are doing today as a part of their path to their personal north star is unstoppable. Because they are motivated beyond their paycheck.

Here’s a much more in-depth article on how and why to have amazing career development conversations with your team:

5. Focus on the Factory, Not the Output

As a leader you need to start obsessing less over sausages and more over sausage factories.

What I mean by that is a close relative to point #3 above: set them up for success and get out of the way.

If you create an environment that breeds the right behaviors and correct actions, the need to manage the outcomes of those actions starts magically disappearing. People tend to rise up to the responsibility bestowed upon them, as long as they’re given the tools to succeed.

Conversely, if you treat people like idiots, they will invariably act like idiots.

Naturally, where there’s trust, there needs to be accountability. Neither of the two can live separate of one another. This is where point #2 from above really pays off. If you have tough conversations early and nip problems in the bud in a constructive and helpful manner, you don’t have to resort to micromanagement as a constant method of keeping things smooth.

This dude has “culture” written all over him

6. If You Thought Hard Conversations Were Hard, Wait Until You Need to Build Culture

Sorry, I lied: Hard talks aren’t the hardest thing. Culture is.

But here’s the good news: There’s no such thing as “building culture”. Culture is an outcome of all your actions, not a separate thing you create.

If you think “culture” is stuff like bi-weekly ping pong tournaments, occasionally getting sloshed together at a happy hour, free cold brew, or karaoke outings, you’re sadly mistaken.

All those things are nice and can bump up the morale when all other things are hunky dory. But they definitely don’t create culture in a void.

Culture is setting people up for success.

Culture is every single action you take (not the words you say — talk is cheap).

Culture is trusting people while holding them accountable at the same time.

Culture is cultivating meaningful interactions between humans.

Culture is actionable values that are present and lived by every single day.

Culture is clarity, focus and not setting people up to compete against each other in unhealthy ways.

I could go on, but I hope you get the picture by now.

Culture is a lot like gardening. You need to lay down soil, plant seeds, fertilize, weed, water, nurture, sing soft lullabies, guard against pests and a whole lot more. Still, the plants grow if they grow. All you can do is provide the optimal environment for growth and protect it with everything you’ve got.

7. Your Direct Reports Are the Single Most Important Thing About Your Work

If it isn’t clear yet, real leadership is all about humans. It’s not about process, systems, spreadsheets, or any of that noise. Those things are just helpers. If you don’t understand how humans work and the fact that there are 7.5B different variations thereof, you can’t really lead.

Nowhere is this as important as in the relationship between a manager and their direct reports. I don’t care what your title is, if you have direct reports, they are your #1 priority.

That means you commit to their long term growth. You call them out on their weaknesses (and provide feedback to help them grow). You don’t randomly move 1-on-1s because of “more important stuff” nor do you run out in the middle of their development talk because “something came up”.

If you’re a manager of humans, empowering and elevating those humans is your top priority.

There’s a whole lot more to leadership and management. Many great books have been written about these topics. This list is just a summary of things that have helped me grow as a leader and manager.

What’s your #1 leadership tip, trick, hack or advice? Tweet me (@forssto) or leave a comment below.

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VP of Product at Teachable. Ex-Shutterstock, Splice & Produx Labs / Insight Partners. Lives in NYC, originally from Helsinki, Finland.

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