What makes a good leader during uncertain times

By marco ·  August 28, 2020

Management is tied to goals. In fact, management exists because you want yourself or a team to reach a goal. In this post, I dive deeper into the character, qualities and behaviors of great managers and try to understand, rather than tell, why they do what they do, and how they help people accomplish goals.

Every direction we go in life is tied to a goal. When you wake up and decide to get out of bed, it’s because you have a goal to accomplish. Some people do it for money, others for fame or success, and a few lucky ones out there do it because they love it.

No matter the reason, it’s always a goal that creates direction and movement.

And so no matter what goals you follow, especially if it’s a personal goal, it’s very clear to see the dynamics and constructs of the goals. You’re the one who executes, the one who manages and the one who is responsible for the outcomes. 

The degree to which you then adopt ownership over your goals is usually also the degree to which you are happy and successful, not only in reaching your goal, but also generally in life.

When you work in teams however, things get a bit more tricky. 
You don’t only have your own goals.

You have a shared goal with a bunch of other people. And you don’t usually carry the same amounts of ownership for those goals as one does with personal goals.

This changes the dynamics significantly and can oftentimes create a lot of frustration for people who are part of a team and want to reach a goal, but are affected by the ongoing dynamics.

Enter: The leader 

The leader’s purpose is to make everybody in the team achieve their common goal more smoothly. 

The common goal for a team usually being the company’s financial survival (revenue/profit) or any other similar designated KPI. 

But somehow, under all the loud noise of management training, workshops, personality training and expensive MBAs, this simple fact seems to have become forgotten.

Therefore, this post is no more than a simple and bold statement: 

“What makes a good leader?” – a leader is as good as they are able to make their teams achieve goals smoothly*.

*Smoothly meaning while preserving individual autonomy, culture, values and mutual agreement.

Indeed, it’s often the simple things that are the ultimate sophistication.

Below I list the exact qualities great managers present, and the responses they evoke.
But don’t forget they all stem from this simple statement above: 

“Making their team achieve goals smoothly.”

  1. Remove barriers for your team
  2. Be able to make difficult decisions
  3. Provide autonomy, but take responsibility
  4. Keep everyone accountable to a high standard
  5. Lead by example
  6. Be value-driven
  7. Listen clearly, then communicate
  8. Be comfortable
  9. Emotional awareness is key
  10. Celebrate and acknowledge the wins

1. Remove barriers for your team

There is no goal in the world that comes without obstacles. Arguably, it may even be the obstacles that give a goal it’s value.

For teams, having the common goal of: “company survival/company wellbeing” – they also face obstacles on the way. The problem could be competitors, internal politics, insufficient project management, tools, you name it.

But most of the time, the barriers are something called “incomplete cycles of action”. Each person has their own responsibility or department, and in that department, they have a series of “actions” they repeat over time which contribute to the common goal.

When a person cannot complete their own tasks or assignments, for whatever reason, their part of contribution remains unmoving. This usually causes other people,  who need to get something else done,  to slow down, which is dependent on the first action.

In essence, it’s the uncompleted cycle of action, a barrier that slows the entire boat down from going through the canal and reaching its destination. And it’s an enormous sequence of uncompleted action cycles which makes a company’s growth stagnant.

It’s any leader’s job to identify and to resolve barriers. 

If this gets done, speed increases and the chances of reaching the company goals increase significantly. What is the reason things are not getting done? Is the system too complicated? Do we need more resources? Is the person not doing their job? No matter what it is, the barrier needs to be confronted and managed.

Some barriers may not be solvable directly, such as competition. Still, you can guide your team on how to overcome the resistance it causes, i.e. how to outperform them. 

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” – Henry Ford

2. Make difficult decisions

There are some things that only leaders can decide. Think about hires, salary increases, letting people go, investing in products or removing unprofitable products.

Although they are decisions only leaders can make, they impact and influence every single member of your team. That means that letting people suffer when a situation is clearly not sustainable isn’t a great sign of leadership. In fact, letting such a situation persist will most definitely cause lower morale.

That means, whenever identifying aspects of the business which aren’t going as planned or needed, always be able to make decisions. Especially when they’re difficult. If you don’t, you won’t be a leader for long.

“The price of greatness is responsibility.” – Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

3. Provide autonomy, but take responsibility

People perform willingly and successfully to the degree that they are trusted. In my experience, it’s distrust and micromanagement that create “protests” in people’s behavior and performance.

While some old-school managers may disagree, I truly believe that the best teams perform on their own volition. While pressure and subduing employees may result in short-term results, I believe that it never compares to the results of long-term employee nurturing.

Just think about it: what would you prefer? An employee whose intention is to help the company grow, because they love the job and its management? Or an employee that’s afraid or intimidated about losing their job?

This is long-term thinking. People who love their management will overperform for years to come, will recruit better people, make their customers feel better and create growth loops of all sorts.

While autonomy is key, there is risk involved. So this approach is not for the faint-hearted.
The reason: it comes hand in hand with responsibility.

While about 80% of your team will perform significantly above standard, about 20% may possibly underperform. It’s important that you as a manager take responsibility over their performance and do not blame your employees directly. In fact, it was your responsibility to discover barriers. 

Instead, research why they underperformed and remove the barrier.
Did they not know what they were doing? Does the person need training? Or do they simply lack interest in the business? Again: identify and react as needed.

In very rare cases, you’re dealing with a bad hire who cannot handle the autonomy. In this case, make a decision. 😉

“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement” – Daniel H. Pink

4. Keep everyone accountable

Your team is driven by agreement. Agreement on what to do, how to do it, but also at what quality standard.

These are fundamentals that need full agreement from your team. 

The more disagreement on fundamentals, the greater the instability of the team and the lesser the likelihood of staying together and achieving goals.

Keeping people accountable to a high standard is a sensitive topic, but it’s absolutely needed.
Great quality people don’t want to work with underperformers who slack it off.

And people who underperform, even carry resentment to you as their manager for not correcting them. Therefore, always keep a high standard of quality if you’re in the game for the long haul.

PS: this does not mean you need similar personality types or that there cannot be disagreements on smaller issues, it’s only agreement on the big things that is needed. 

“Accountability breeds response-ability.” ― Stephen R. Covey

5. Lead by Example

“There is only so much you can say. All the rest must be done.” – Marco van Bree.

Is it socially acceptable yet to quote yourself?

Basically what this means is what every parent in the world already knows: children follow your example, not your opinion.

The same counts for employees. Leaders who work extremely hard, persist, show their dedication and go beyond, often inspire their employees to take a similar attitude.

While it may be debatable whether this is “good” or “bad” from a labor union’s perspective, you can definitely say that if a team member is copying the positive values of a leader, the chances that the business thrives economically become much better.

And since we’re talking about what makes a good leader; do inspire your teammates to be better while leading by example. Don’t only say what they should do – show them how it’s done.

A leader with such an attitude often becomes an enigma to their employees.

“How does he/she do it?”

In fact, the leader is just following a few simple rules and values.

“What you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.” –  Ralph Waldo Emerson

6. Be value-driven

Great leaders set overarching values which create a sticky culture. 

This highlights the importance of ethics in leadership.

Leaders who are unethical and who don’t have clear values often produce and incentivize a work culture of people with similarly low values.

In fact, great people won’t stay in places with terrible values.

Bad people are attracted to bad values.

So choosing your values is choosing your people. Who do you want?

7. Listen patiently, then communicate clearly

This is particularly important for any great leader.

Great leaders communicate their ideas clearly and coherently. But more importantly, they listen.

Managers who excel, know that listening is where most of communication is taking place.

The reason is that you simply want to create accord and understanding.

Understanding keeps people’s minds free and creates clarity.

Therefore, whatever is being discussed, the purpose should always be to create as much understanding as possible.

“Any problem, big or small, within a family, always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening.” – Emma Thompson

8. Be comfortable

Managers carry the sails for the boat. That means, the more comfortable a manager is, the more stable the boat.

What is being comfortable? It means being able to deal with all the pressure, criticism, discussions, competition, contacts and everything else going on in the business. And simply being able to “handle” it and stay stable.

Managers who are easily shaken are oftentimes not able to provide a secure space for their team. They then project their insecurities on their employees who in turn feel uncomfortable.

Want to recognize a great manager? See how comfortable they are.

PS: if the company is facing economic uncertainty or worse and the manager is “too comfortable” that’s not good either and the person is probably not handling appropriately. However, if the company is doing well and the manager is constantly “uncomfortable” – that’s alarming. 

“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” – Publilius Syrus

9. Emotional awareness is key

Always know who you are dealing with in your team. Who do you have in front of you?

Is the person more sensitive? Or do they want things straight as they are?

Many times, people who are great performers experience a little bit of a slump. It might be that something is going on in their life, they broke up with their spouse, or their family is in trouble.

Always keep in mind that you’re dealing with people. And act with empathy. Simply ask in a mature way what is going on.

Example: Hey {Name}, I noticed that your performance went down over the last months. Is everything ok? Can I help you with anything?

Great managers try to get the conversation going and to understand what is the real driver of the bad performance without immediately ousting the teammate.

They take responsibility and cover another’s back while they discover what’s going on.

“The organization is, above all, social. It is people.” –Peter Drucker

10. Celebrate and acknowledge the wins

Great managers enjoy and acknowledge the small moments. They also celebrate the big moments. Don’t overgo or surpass this ever. It’s what makes the journey fun and worthwhile. 

Also, sometimes you need to enjoy some rest and goodness before tackling the next series of problems!

“People work for money but go the extra mile for recognition, praise and rewards.” – Dale Carnegie, Leadership Trainer

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With 💙 from Marco van Bree

About the author

Marco Van Bree Marco is the Founder and CEO of Zengrowth. He loves marketing, distribution and growth and has been helping SaaS companies achieve better results for the last 5 years. You can wake him up for pizza and pick his brains about anything chess related. He is also into self-development and loves sharing his learnings in business.
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