5 ways to be a better leader

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Although many aspire to be leaders, in its Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015 survey, the World Economic Forum found an overwhelming 86 per cent of respondents believe the world faces a leadership crisis.

Given almost daily reports of political or business leaders betraying their core values or compromising the interests of constituents or stakeholders in the pursuit of personal gains, perhaps establishing this didn’t need a survey.

It is important to know how the leaders of today and tomorrow can deliver better leadership. Here are five key suggestions for improving leadership capability, directly applicable to current and future managers and leaders.

Know who you are and want to be

Many talented people become leaders simply because it’s expected of them. Skilled individuals attract attention and companies tend to promote those they believe have an ability to lead.

But do you really want to be a leader and if so, why?

Good leadership requires effective management and a capacity to motivate people to achieve set goals. Author of four best-selling books on the subject and professor of business leadership at Harvard Business School, Bill George, believes many people are awarded leadership roles only because they’re seen as talented.

They might initially perform relatively well, but their sights were never set on leading people or helping them to achieve. Therefore, when the going gets tough there can be a tendency to prioritise personal gains over the best interests of those they lead.

Bill George suggests that we ask ourselves these fundamental questions before taking on formal leadership roles:

  1. Why do I want to lead?
  2. What do I want to accomplish through my leadership?
  3. Do I have a sense of purpose, or am I just leading to satisfy my own ego need?

Look after yourself

Leadership is most necessary when things are going poorly. It should be no surprise that leaders often report being under considerable stress, with multiple stakeholders to manage, subordinates to oversee, difficult decisions to make and frequently conflicting deadlines to meet. In The Stress of Leadership research white paper by the Center for Creative Leadership, 88 per cent of leaders point to work as the primary source of stress in their lives. A lack of resources and time are the most stressful leadership demands experienced by leaders.

To manage leadership stress effectively, you must first be aware of the signs of stress and develop strategies to increase your personal resources to cope with ongoing role demands. Other than maintaining a healthy diet and regular sleep and exercise, you should take rest breaks whenever possible and time out to enjoy activities that will help you to replenish your physical and mental energies. Without rest, you won’t achieve productivity, creativity, and innovation. Instead, you’ll end up feeling burnt out and cantankerous.

This advice is followed by Google employees who rest and meditate regularly. Google has brought the same innovative mindset to stress management for its employees. Back in 2007, one of its software engineers, Chade-Meng Tan, observed that while he and his colleagues had no problem engaging in their work, they struggled to detach themselves after work. As an avid practitioner of mindfulness meditation, Tan launched Search Inside Yourself, a 7-week mindfulness meditation course for Google employees. Those who went through the course felt calmer, clear-headed, more focused, and were able to unplug at the end of the day.

Build a support network

It’s often said it’s lonely at the top. Indeed, in 2012 a Harvard Business Review study reported that half of all CEOs feel isolated. Once you become a leader, people may not communicate with you as openly as they once did, and even if they do it will often relate to negatives. The study also revealed that just shy of 70 per cent of first-time CEOs admitted to loneliness adversely affecting their performance, as they feel responsible for the well-being of all employees who work under them.

To help counter this, build a strong support network of family and friends and seek out other leaders as mentors. Above all, cultivate trusting relationships, because the more demanding your role becomes, the more you are going to need these people in your corner. You can also consider participating in peer learning groups with other leaders who can relate to your struggles and provide concrete suggestions and solutions. In particular, women leaders have found that meeting other women leaders has been very affirming and empowering as they face similar issues and brainstorm for solutions.

Know how emotions affect you and others

Because all leaders experience achievements and frustrations, they ride an emotional rollercoaster. However, so do many others. Knowing how emotions affect you and your people is important; knowing how to manage them is vital.

Since 1990, psychologists Professors John Mayer and Peter Salovey have led research in this field, which they dubbed Emotional Intelligence (EI). Their studies show that EI (also known as EQ, for Emotional Quotient) is a stronger predictor of performance than traditional measures such as IQ (Intelligence Quotient).

However, unlike IQ – which is not normally subject to marked change – EI can slowly improve with training and time. Anyone unsure as to whether EI is among their key strengths should take an EI test (a good one is the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, or MSCEIT), and then work to develop it.

EI is an individual’s ability to identify, evaluate, control and express emotions. Those with high EI usually make good leaders and team players because they can understand, empathise and connect with people around them. Howard Schultz, executive chairman of Starbucks, was renowned to have a high level of EI and this is evident through his commitment to building relationships and understanding his employees’ needs and wants. Schultz felt strongly that by engaging and motivating his employees in Starbucks, they, in turn, would spur that same pride in their co-workers and customers.

Make evidence-based decisions

Ask any leader why they made a certain decision and they will almost always have an answer that sounds right and makes sense. But that does not mean their rationale was objective, let alone based on scientific evidence.

For example, leaders often recruit new employees after informal meetings with potential hires. From these “unstructured interviews”, they develop a sense of whether a person will be right for the job. Yet psychologists have long known that unstructured interviews are not accurate predictors of on-the-job performance.

In fact, studies have shown that making decisions from such interviews may lead to worse outcomes than random chance. In contrast, good leaders look for evidence to ensure their hiring decisions are not only based on rational thinking, but backed by science.

Psychometric testing, for example, is increasingly accepted as a standard, scientific method to measure a job applicant’s mental capabilities and behavioural attributes. The tests are designed to measure a candidate’s suitability for a role based on required personality characteristics or cognitive abilities.

Evidence-based leadership is about making decisions through the use of the best available evidence from multiple sources. Want to learn more about evidence-based decision-making? The Centre for Evidence-Based Management provides a range of useful resources for evidence-based practice in the field of management and leadership.

Dr David Cheng is a lecturer in leadership and management and Carys Chan a PhD candidate in organisational behavior and human resources at the Research School of Management, College of Business and Economics, Australian National University.

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