The 5 Things Great Leaders Do

A fair wage and clean working conditions are the food and shelter of work — necessary, but insufficient. A thriving workplace goes beyond functional requirements and considers nuanced human needs like growth, impact, and community.

“Management works in the system; leadership works on the system.” — Stephen R. Covey

A leader’s span of influence is significant — their actions disproportionately impact others. Yet, If you ask a typical manager what they do each day, you will hear about setting goals, managing the budget and hiring. We need to embrace the human side of work.

The best leaders create an environment where great work is possible.

The good news is that there are specific actions leaders can take to terraform their workplace into nutrient rich soil — I call these behaviors the 5 C’s of Leadership: Confidence, Compassion, Clarity, Change and Candor.

The 5 C’s of Leadership embrace the human side of work.

I. Provide Clarity

Great leaders are clear on their envisioned future and communicate it consistently. What is the new normal you are trying to create? Why does it matter? Is the world worse off if you fail? If you aren’t inspired, how can you expect your team to be?

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” — Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

An aspirational future is your north star, but it’s not enough. You also need to connect the dots on the ground or you’ll be seen as a hapless dreamer. Bridge the divide by articulating where you play, and how you win — Target buyer, geographies being attacked, necessary product capabilities, and more. The litmus test for clarity is this: can you can state what you will NOT do as an organization.

“A company must seek to win in a particular place and in a particular way.” — Playing to Win by A.G. Lafley, Roger L. Martin

Living your newfound focus is not easy — you have to be consistent, even when it’s painful. If you waver under pressure you will lose the team.

Everyone says they want to ship a great product, but when the deadline is upon you, what do you do? You say you only hire top performers, but when you make a bad hire, do you own up and act quickly? One of the great challenges of life is to live up to our own advice, but for a leader, it is the ticket to entry.

People crave focus — it’s your job to provide it.

II. Inspire Confidence

We naturally demand competence from our coworkers, but it’s easy to forget that your team demands it from you as well. Expectations go both ways.

Can you do the job you are asking them to do? If not, you have a credibility issue. People don’t want to take orders from anyone who hasn’t been where they are, and understands the challenges they are facing. How can you learn from someone who doesn’t know?

A players don’t follow B players.

If employees don’t have faith in your ability to deliver, you’re dead in the water. Your hand is on the wheel so it helps if you’ve successfully navigated the rocky shoreline with grace and skill. Would you let a student driver take you through snowcapped mountains at night?

As a leader, you don’t need to be an expert in every area, but you must be great at something that matters to the mission. Do that thing especially well and surround yourself with others where you are weak. Self awareness and humility are the key traits to embody.

Be skilled, self-aware and fill your gaps.

III. Be Candid

Jack Welch calls a lack of candor the biggest dirty little secret in business. The good news is that being authentic with your team doesn’t require any additional budget approval or a fancy VP title. All you need is a bit of courage.

Candor is not the same as calling out every minute detail of the business that isn’t going perfectly — challenges are par for the course. Don’t dwell on the negative, but don’t ignore it either. Sticking your head in the sand isn’t a strategy. Acknowledge reality.

If you see the issues, don’t you think your team does as well?

Employees are adults and should be treated as such. You’re not their parent or their best friend — you are their teammate. Be honest about what isn’t working, work to address it, and you’ll earn their respect.

Foster honest dialogue.

IV. Make Change

Managers spend a lot of time checking in on the work their team is doing. They count on each person to get their job done. As a leader, it’s easy to forget that your team counts on you as well!

Your team relies on you to pave the path so they can move ahead. Forward momentum is a result not only of understanding the issues, but a willingness to act. Healthy workplaces don’t just discuss challenges openly, they solve them.

Without progress, your team will begin to view you as either unwilling or unable to facilitate change on their behalf. Soon issues will stop surfacing and you’ll be disconnected from the realities on the ground.

After all, what’s the point of raising thorny issues if they won’t be addressed? No one want’s to be branded as “negative” or a “complainer”, so employees quietly retreat to safety, taking their passion and energy with them. This is what disengagement feels like.

Progress is your priority.

V. Embody Compassion

To be a leader, you have to genuinely care about employees and be empathetic to their needs. Understand who they are professionally and personally.

Work is so much of our life, a boss who takes no interest in anything but your output is missing something essential to the human experience. If you focus on the punch card, you’ll get an attendance culture.

People have a personal life, be genuinely interested.

Leadership is a privilege granted by your team based on how well you deliver on these 5 C’s: Confidence, Compassion, Clarity, Change and Candor. Stop being a business person and start being human. In time, your team may not only respect you, they may even like you. After all, leadership is terraforming.


If you liked this post, check out the Qualities of Companies I’ve Enjoyed Working At.