Are you choosing to be the kind of leader that someone would change jobs to follow? Or the kind they'd change jobs to escape?
A good leader is someone who directs their team, using their high visibility across the whole business to gather new information and use it to make guiding decisions. A great leader, however, maintains four vital aspects whilst steering their teams toward success: clarity, confidence, alignment, and trust.
The responsibility of a leader
On a foundational level, leaders ensure that their teams understand their responsibilities, recognize their wider goals, and agree on how to get there.
Crucially, a leader must also make sure that their teams know that the company is there to support them through all of these avenues. This becomes an important factor when tasks aren’t being completed and deadlines are being missed. Steering the ship under these pressured conditions must be done with tact, as it can quickly fall into the pit of being destructive or harmful for your peers.
Someone in a leadership position who fails to create clarity, confidence, alignment, and trust is choosing to inflict massive damage to the psychological safety of the team – and therefore the company’s overall productivity, morale, and retention.
“They’ll do what I say because that's what they’re paid to do,” says the leader at the end of a contentious meeting where they couldn’t articulate why their plan was important.
“If they don’t want to do the work we’ll get rid of them and hire someone who does,” says the VP who, during the last company town hall meeting, refused to answer straightforward questions about the company's plans and direction.
“Nobody wants to work anymore,” says the founder whose most senior team members are resigning en masse after months of having their valid concerns waved away as low priority.
Leaders might be able to drag a company forward for a short time while in active conflict with their employees, but the cost is astronomical. This approach is a quick and sure way of destroying trust in teams, which is extremely hard to recover. Teams without trust have low confidence in leadership and tend to push back against plans not only because they aren’t aligned with the goals, but also to protect themselves against a bad plan rolling downhill and damaging their career.
Inefficient companies come in many shapes and sizes, but the most common fall susceptible to plausible deniability approaches (refusal to take direct ownership), and endless meetings for approval processes.
More often than not, this stems from a lack of clarity, confidence, alignment, and trust. Any leader with hopes of running a functional company can’t afford to let these efforts slide, even if revenue is coming up short or daily active users (DAUs) are down. In fact, when the company gets bad news, it’s more important than ever to focus on building these qualities within the team.
1. Creating clarity in teams
If every individual contributor (IC) on a given team was asked what they’re supposed to be focusing on and why, how much would the answers vary between people?
On teams that struggle to ship, there’s often so little clarity that team members can’t even clearly describe what they’re building, let alone why it matters.
To be an effective leader, you need to provide extremely unambiguous guidance on what the team is responsible for and why it’s important.
The best leaders I’ve worked with repeat themselves endlessly and keep a narrow focus – there’s no question about what they expect from their team or how they’ll measure the results.
2. Establishing confident teams
Imagine that another leader challenges an IC on your team with a question like, “Why are you working on this and not that?” What’s the likelihood that the IC will give an unflinching explanation for why their current task takes priority?
High clarity goes a long way, but people need to feel confident that their actions won’t lead to trouble. The team needs to trust that they’re not going to be punished for following through on what they’ve been told is the right thing to do.
Confidence comes in two parts:
1. People need to feel confident that they’re doing the right thing.
2. People need to feel confident that they won’t be thrown under the bus if things go poorly.
Good leadership directly provides both.
A strong leader works not just to communicate to their own team, but to repeat the message externally as well, ensuring that leadership across the company is aware of – and has bought into – the team’s direction and goals. The team should have a clear document they can point to that states what they should be working on and why – and challenges should go to the leader, not to the team.
3. Creating alignment in teams
After a productive planning session or a great meeting, everyone feels like they’re on the same page. However, over time, people’s understanding starts to drift apart.
Leaders need to create durable alignment – this means capturing all of the clarity, expectations, definitions of success, and metrics into one document.
In my experience, this is where most leaders (myself included) go horribly wrong. We claim we’re “too busy” to write these documents, then end up in hours and hours of meetings where we have to repeat the details of the plan.
This often leads to even more confusion. Repeating details verbally to different team members, after getting constant individual updates on the overall context, inevitably means making small adjustments to the plan on the fly. This undermines both clarity and confidence, giving way to comments like, “Last week you said something different – should I change what I’m doing?”
It’s tempting for leaders to lie to themselves and say that these constant updates are necessary to keep everyone on the same page. In reality, however, these leaders are prioritizing their own unwillingness to commit to a plan over the team’s ability to execute with clarity and confidence.
If you’re a leader, you need to commit to a course of action, write it down, and then resist the urge to change it unless there is a very good reason. Every change breaks momentum because it requires a fresh effort to create alignment.
This is a great example of “perfect” being the enemy of good. In the pursuit of perfecting a plan, we prevent the team from being able to do anything at all.
4. Building trust in your teams
Nearly all of this comes back to building foundational trust with your team. As the leader, are you going to back them up? If you give clear guidance and they take ownership, are you going to support them if they get challenged from elsewhere in the company?
Do people feel safe bringing you problems? Or are they likely to be penalized for raising their hand?
Penalization can be direct, such as telling someone they're “causing a scene” or “being difficult”. It can also be indirect, such as making the person who raised the issue responsible for fixing it or throwing them into more meetings to be the bearer of bad news to the folks who own the problem. Neither of these approaches should be a leader’s port of call.
Trust is the hardest thing to build because it cannot be earned through a checklist. Trust comes from who you are as a leader. When you think about your team, are you out to protect them? Are you willing to do the uncomfortable work of confronting tensions before they turn into problems? Will you stop being nice to make room for being kind?
People sense who’s in their corner. Too many of us are carrying baggage from previous leaders who have broken our trust. As a leader, you have to earn your team’s trust in spite of their past experiences, then show up and continue to maintain that trust every day.
This is hard to measure, so it probably won’t show up as a metric. But a leader fostering a strong sense of trust within their team is an unstoppable force. When you see a team that has followed the same leader across multiple companies and made great impacts at each of them, you can see the power strong trust can have.
Without great leadership, nothing works for long
As a leader, none of your strategy or vision matters if the team doesn’t know about it, understand it, agree on it, and trust you.
Even when things get challenging – especially when things get challenging – put the effort into actually leading your team and not just telling them what to do.