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9 things that true leaders (should) never do

May 7, 2016 | Business and Leadership Skills

Note: This article also appeared in Entrepreneur Middle East, and can be viewed on the site here.

A discussion about effective leadership must always leave the door open for the “howevers” and the “with the exception ofs”. That’s because no matter how tempting it is to classify good and bad leaders according to specific traits or a specific leadership style, we cannot ignore the fact that there are so many different CEOs out there getting results by doing things in their own unique ways.

From the quiet introversion of Bill Gates to the blustering determination of Elon Musk – and even, dare I say it, the borderline insanity of Donald Trump – different styles and traits and personalities still seem to get the job done.

But let’s not forget that getting results isn’t the whole picture. If, for example, a leader rules with an iron fist and achieves the desired end goal but morale among staff is low and employee turnover is high, then can that person truly be considered a great leader?

One thing’s for certain: the importance of getting it right when it comes to managing employees is key to having some sort of balance in your workplace. If that balance is missing, it will be felt, and your front door will become a revolving one. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that 50% of employees left a job purely to “get away” from their manager.

Now such a stat probably comes as no surprise to anyone, but to you bosses and leaders and managers and company owners, do take such information to heart, reminding yourself that it is not about you. It’s about how you are with them. And that is something that the true leader gives some serious thought to on an almost daily basis.

As for what exactly that “how you are” is or should be or could be, I wanted to address it from the other side in this article by focusing on what it certainly should not be. To that end, we’re going to take a look now at nine things a truly good leader simply doesn’t do.

A recent Gallup poll found that 50% of employees left a job purely to “get away” from their manager.

1. Act tough: 

One of the biggest misconceptions about successful leadership is that toughness – or even aggression – is simply par for the course. For me this boils down to the fact that many people mistake aggression for strength, when in fact the two have very little to do with each other. A great leader displays the strength to do what’s right, makes difficult decisions when they’re required, and applies a firm hand when needed. Those who display aggression, on the other hand, try to intimidate and rule through force of character rather than earned respect. And that, at its core, is bullying. Far from demonstrating leadership, such behaviour is usually a sign that the boss is in over his or her head, and simply doesn’t have the answers.

2. Insult people: 

This point really ties in with the one above in that this type of behaviour once again serves to highlight the difference between a leader and a bully. When times get tough, a bully more often than not turns on his or her team – blames them for the business’ shortcomings and gets personal about the standard of work they have performed. A leader on the other hand works with the team as a member of the team, offers constructive feedback, and supports them in finding a solution to the challenge in front of them. This is not to suggest employees must be mollycoddled at all times. If a mistake has been made due to carelessness, it is fine to point that out clear as day and warn that such mistakes will not be tolerated going forward. But once you start calling individuals “sloppy” or “careless”, for example, a line has been crossed.

3. Do not fear taking decisions: 

There is a common tendency among first-time entrepreneurs in particular to assume everybody else knows best. In those first few months (and even years) when the learning curve is at its steepest, many entrepreneurs like to find safety by taking advice from peers, colleagues, friends and family – and just about anyone for that matter. While this is certainly no bad thing – and at times a qualified opinion is of course just what the doctor ordered – it is that word “qualified” which entrepreneurs must keep in mind.

Strong leaders seek advice when they know someone else is well placed to give it and not simply because they doubt their own decision-making abilities. Or to put it in the words of American philosopher Vernon Howard, “A truly strong person does not need the approval of others any more than a lion needs the approval of sheep.” The bottom line is this: Take counsel when you need it – absolutely; but know that the buck stops with you and you alone are the one who has to deal with the consequences of the final decision. That’s true leadership.

4. Fail to set clear goals: 

If you do not fully understand what you want to achieve and how you wish to achieve it, how can you expect anyone else to support in your building efforts? Yet despite its great importance, goal-setting is not happening much out there in the business world. In one particularly comprehensive study of over 26,000 employees, the FranklinCovey Execution Quotient survey found that just one in seven workers could identify the top three goals of their organisation. Now this may indicate that there are goals but they’re simply not being communicated, but it’s likely that in most of those cases the goals are rather weakly defined or do not exist. Again, the main problem is that if your staff do not know where you’re heading, how on earth are they going to help get you there?

5. Feel sorry for him or herself: 

If there’s one thing you will never see strong leaders do (or successful people in general for that matter), it’s feeling sorry for themselves. As we all know, business can be tough and there will always be days when it feels like the world is against you, but the truly strong waste no time wallowing in self-pity when the chips are down. Admirable and noble leaders take full responsibility for their actions, and with that comes a sense that their destiny is ultimately in their hands. Sure, sometimes life isn’t fair, but rather than ask “why me?” great leaders power through.

6. Give praise too easily: 

A truly great leader knows the power of praise – that is, when to give it and when it is not necessary. While it may seem like an effective approach to heap compliments on employees, in actual fact it can start to become counterproductive. If you lavish praise on your staff simply for performing the standard duties of their job, there is a danger that they will start to view ordinary or expected behaviour as exceptional and therefore not strive to go the extra mile. I should stress here that strong leaders will always give credit where it is due and a job well done will always be acknowledged, but real praise is doled out in a manner that tends to recognise the achievements that went above and beyond. In so doing, the “excellence bar” is constantly being raised, which is all part of building something great, rather than something good.

7. Appear not to be in control: 

There are times when all of us – whether good leaders or not – feel like we’ve lost control of a situation. What differentiates the great leaders out there, however, is that they never let anyone else see this. It is not that great leaders don’t feel this way now and then, it is simply that they keep their emotions in check and remain calm. Like the duck on water, it’s business on top (what people see), and mad flapping below (unseen). A truly strong leader knows that there is nothing to be gained by panicking, and that, in fact, a crisis very often stems from a lack of composure. That’s not to say that strong leaders hold back or bury their heads in the sand. Not by a longshot. But rather than open a crisis meeting with, “I have no clue what to do – any ideas?”, they’ll shoot with, “Here’s the situation, let’s put our heads together and solve it.”

8. Act inappropriately: 

What is appropriate for one business environment may not always be appropriate for another, but as a general rule of thumb, common sense, decency, and courtesy win the day. Strong leaders will always recognise the boundaries between themselves and their staff and ensure those boundaries are respected at all times. At the more serious end, this of course means no member of staff should ever feel harassed, threatened, or intimidated. At the other end of the spectrum, a truly strong leader always ensures that the work-life boundary is fully respected, and never pressures employees into prioritising the office over family and personal matters.

9. Get too excited about any one idea:

 I’ll leave you with what for me is a super important one – lack of control over excitability about an idea. Strong and capable leaders are never going to hit on an idea and suddenly proclaim it as a eureka moment – the business concept that will finally make their fortune! Why? Because all great leaders know that the idea is just the beginning – the spark that lights the fire. Only once an idea looks like a goer does the hard work begin: forecasts are made, workflows are laid out, costings are drawn up, and timeframes are agreed upon. The reality is that hitting on an idea is the easy part (and let’s face it, most ideas are stolen anyway or simply already out there). And while sure, the leader may be internally thinking that this could be big, the real excitement is displayed during the building, where that excitement is translated into a true and contagious energy. This makes good sense: The true leader knows how to bring things to life, but also knows that it takes time. So it’s the various milestones that are met along the way that excite, because that is essentially where proof of concept (read true money potential) is starting to reveal itself.

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