What makes a good leader? And how do they best apply their talents? People have been asking these questions about leadership traits for centuries, and depending on who you ask, you’ll get a wide variety of responses. For every servant leader like Tony Hsieh of Zappos, you can find a more ruthless example such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon or Bill Gates of Microsoft.
Focusing on pure business results will steer you toward the Bezos-types. But that approach involves a lot of collateral damage—to employees, business partners, and even customers. It’s as controversial as it is impactful.
Hsieh found a way to balance his strategic ambitions with a healthy dose of goodness. The model not only worked but allowed Zappos to thrive. The company did so well that Amazon acquired it.
So does this mean that it’s now just another component in the efficient (and sometimes brutal) Amazon machine? Nope. Because the leadership was so effective early on that joining up with Amazon has empowered its expansion without dimming its power.
Here’s what the “What We Live By” section of Zappos.com says about their approach to business:
Since our humble beginnings, Zappos has been a customer-obsessed company that focuses on delivering a WOW experience. We aim to inspire the world by showing it’s possible to simultaneously deliver happiness to customers, as well as employees, vendors, shareholders, and the community, in a long-term, sustainable way. This vision led Zappos to deliver happiness through the four C’s: Commerce, Customer Service, Company Culture, Community. As Zappos continues to transform and scale, we want to ensure the four C’s remain top of mind in our day-to-day business operations. This means offering shoppers more clothing styles and variety, reimagining ways to exceed customer expectations, protecting and growing our company culture, and serving communities near and far.
When entrepreneurs possess good leadership skills, they create lasting success. More importantly, that success is extensible. As Zappos proclaims, their model will always be engineered to benefit customers, employees, vendors, shareholders, and communities. There’s reciprocity in action, rather than pure domination.
The Psychology of What Makes a Good Leader
It takes a unique set of leadership traits to run a startup. Sure, there are overlapping areas with other types of leadership. The CEO of a startup should be a strong communicator, which is also true of the leaders of charitable organizations, professional sports leagues, or community theater groups.
Likewise, any leader should be able to inspire their team. If you can effectively rally your troops, you’ll always be able to move forward to reach your goals.
But startups are a different beast. You’ll need the “standard issue” traits, but with an added element of greatness. For example, your solid communication skills need to be upgraded to a charismatic communicator. Your belief in your company should shine through as you speak with employees, partners, clients, and the media.
And you will need to do more than just inspire your team. The ability to work through complex and tense interpersonal situations is required. Because the pressure cooker environment of a startup brings an oversized dose of conflict. If you can’t handle it, it will handle you.
As Matt Johnson, a professor at Hult International Business School, explains:
For first-time founders, 2 skill sets are crucial. The first is being able to communicate their story effectively. The initial step here is understanding their “why”: why does this product matter to them, and why does it matter to the world? […] From there these ideas need to be communicated not only clearly, but with confidence and charisma. […] This is also an area where practice is key. Very few people are great, ‘natural’ speakers, but thankfully this is a skillset which can improve with experience and repetition. The other major skillset is conflict resolution. Conflict within a founding team is inevitable, and so being able to deal with it effectively can be a key differentiator between start-ups which fail and those which move forward.
The relationship between what is required of entrepreneurs and what they need to deliver is an inverse of the famous Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Instead, it’s “With great responsibility must come the development of great traits.”
Of course, anyone can lead a business. But what we’re talking about here is effectively leading a business to greater heights. And that kind of performance doesn’t take place without a focus on leadership traits.
Mastering the Universal Principles of Leadership
The upgraded nature of good leadership skills reveals the relationship between the basics that form the foundation upon which excellence is built. Good communicators learn to project confidence in every syllable. Team-builders develop the extra ability to become resolvers of problems.
Thus, there’s nothing inherently inadequate in the basics. They’re essential elements that enable you to get better. But you should never be content to merely cling to them. Use them as building blocks to move higher.
Luke Ferris has shared 5 universal leadership principles that serve as an effective checklist for those who want to lead a business. Take a moment to review them and assess your strengths. If you’re already doing well in a few of the areas, you can put more emphasis on the others.
Setting the Tone for Your Business
As an entrepreneur, you serve as the voice and face of your business. There likely isn’t some sort of Kool-Aid Man serving as a mascot or a Jared Fogle-type spokesperson (thank your lucky stars).
So the way you speak, dress, and carry out your work will say a lot about your vision and capabilities. And it also provides an example for those around you. In this way, your tone-setting ways can build positive momentum for the entire organization.
Given everything at stake with a startup, it’s safe to say that everyone involved wants to succeed. But what does that success look like? And what will be required to bring it to pass?
This is where strong leaders step in and set expectations on the organization and individual level. You can’t wait for others to do it for you or simply react to the day-to-day performance of the business. By laying things out in detail, you’ll have goals to work toward and can speak the same language when holding each other accountable.
Knowing Your Impact
Your impact will always be affected by the perceptions of others. So it’s essential for you to know how others view and react to your leadership.
Ferris uses a series of questions to outline the significance of this point:
How people react when you walk into a room is critical to understanding your impact as a leader. Are you a second-generation business owner that everybody in the plant has known since you were in diapers? Are you starting a leadership position in an industry you know little about? Are you leading a team you once were a part of? Knowing your impact will guide your attitude and decision-making.
Don’t misinterpret this point and assume that you need to be some sort of chameleon who adapts to whatever people you’re interacting with. Just be aware of the dynamics involved with your role in the business. If your team feels you were destined for the role, you can make decisions accordingly. If you’re viewed as a rookie leader with a lot to learn, share with your team the steps you’re taking to strengthen your skills and be sure to help them feel involved in the decision-making process.
Motivating Your Team
One of the key areas where a leader does need to show adaptability is when motivating the team. Some of your employees might respond best to public recognition, others thrive when talking about their future career path, and others are introverts who crave a personalized note thanking them for a job well done. All of these preferences are legitimate. And they must all be addressed through a customized motivational approach.
Small business leaders sometimes feel the need to take on all the responsibilities and make all the decisions. But this approach is as unsustainable as it is damaging. Nobody respects a martyr in business.
First off, if you try to carry too much weight you’ll eventually collapse. And even before the inevitable fall, your abilities will be diluted by the sheer size of your workload. It’s a surefire way to waste your best talents and make yourself less effective.
Second, by declining to delegate you’re sending the message that you don’t trust your team. This can seem counterintuitive to some entrepreneurs, as they would assume that by tackling as much work as possible, they’ll inspire their team. But it actually indicates that you don’t think other people will be able to do it right.
By sharing the load, you’ll free up time for your most important tasks and empower your team to step up with new responsibilities. Plus, you’ll be rewarded by the fresh perspective and new ideas that come from enlisting the help of others.
Find Your Strength in Numbers
You will always be at your best when your team is. So lean on your people and trust in their abilities. You shouldn’t just be a great leader for your team–you should be great because of your team.
Here’s an example of how the team approach could make you a better leader. Your ecommerce business has been running for 7 months and sales are finally starting to come in consistently. You’ve become accustomed to an intense daily regimen but have recently hired 3 employees to help run the business.
Just in time, too, because you are feeling exhausted. In fact, you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a few months.
Because you built the business from scratch, all processes share your DNA. So when the new employee who will be overseeing your product inventory starts revising things, you initially feel a bit defensive. But you ultimately give her room to innovate and support her decisions.
Lo and behold, your employee proves to be a rockstar. Not only is your inventory in its best shape ever, but she has found ways to improve efficiencies and save money on shipping.
Your social media expert also begins to shake things up. You already established a voice for your brand, but he takes it in a different direction. Rather than tighten the clamps, you trust in his skills.
Soon, your social media engagement is higher than ever and it’s obvious that your new employee has insights that you never would’ve uncovered on your own.
Finally, your new office administrator has bill payments, invoices, and all other aspects of operations humming. This is cause for celebration because you were never good at the handling of these details.
By being a leader who recognizes talent and then trusts their teammates is already paying off. But there’s the added element of what you’re able to do with more time and a broader range of perspectives. You focus on developing areas of weakness, such as conflict resolution, and motivating your team in personalized ways.
The more you work on being the best leader for each employee, the more you learn from your people. Your confidence grows and your abilities expand. You’re truly a great leader because of your team.
This example doesn’t need to be hypothetical. The fact that you’ve reached this point in the article shows how seriously you’re taking this pursuit of greatness. And with each passing day, you’ll continue to grow into a better person and the best leader possible.
For additional insights and strategies for becoming a business leader of distinction, visit our library of free courses. Our instructors are all entrepreneurs who have traveled this road before and can provide valuable assistance. From strategies for reaching business goals as a team to the best ways to handle negotiations and interpersonal issues, it’s clear our instructors know what qualities make a good leader.