Breakdown 5: Leading a Team
Welcome to Breakdown 5. BD is where I give away how to learn a coach's secret secret sauce: how to dissect a person's problem so you can give them the solution. Think of it a little bit like making an ice cream cake - I don't just show you the final cake but the recipe and mechanism that got me there.
Learn to copy my coaching skill and you're learning how to coach yourself.
If you'd like to have a problem of yours BD'd please feel free to just hit reply and let me know. It's always a delight to do one of these and help one of you.
BD posts can get quite (very) long. Today we don't break down a problem but instead focus on a topic that I think a lot about: leading a team.
Estimated full reading time: 19.2 minutes (went pretty deep this week)
THE TOPIC BREAKDOWN
Thanks as always for writing in. As you didn't really give me much to go on, instead of breaking down your problem today I'll instead break down leadership and how I like to think about it. If you apply these concepts you should be well on your way to leading your team effectively and hopefully also on your way to a promotion :)
Our BD will be in three parts today. Part One will be some rules of leadership that I follow. Part Two will be on the two different types of leadership that people generally use- either Inspirational/Mission Driven and those that are Human/Goal Driven. Part Three will be on applying this to your own personality and unique skill set.
As a leader, your job is to serve the people around you.
You're put in charge to direct the team to an outcome.
The best leaders serve. The best leaders eat last.
One of the best forms of leadership I've even see was holidays with a bunch of my friends. One of them was an ex-commander in the special forces. We had been travelling for 16 hours and had arrived at our AirBnB when we found out there were only 6 single beds between 7 sleepy males. As we were all pretty grumpy from travel, a fight broke out pretty rapidly over who would get the best and worst beds... and who would need to eat it and sleep on the floor.
As this was going on, my friend realised that this was his fault as he had been the one to book the AirBnb. He knew it was his responsibility, so whilst the other people argued he went and found a spare pillow, rolled up on the floor and went to sleep. Problem solved. No one had to ask him to do it, he just did it without even speaking to anyone and made me look bad in the process.
That's a real leader right there.
Let's get into it and breakdown leadership ...
Part One: Leadership Rules
1. Ensure Clarity and Buy-In.
As a leader, you need to supply your followers with one thing immediately: clarity on what you're aiming for as a group. This isn't just a simple message of 'we are aiming for more profit' but goes much, much deeper. Each person in the group needs to understand their role within that aim, what you expect each of them to do specifically and how you'll be measuring their progress. This is huge.
Each person you lead should be able to explain back to you the specific outcomes they are working towards and how you're going to be measuring their progress. If you do this communication starts to really flow and you build a great culture because each individual is clear and certain on what they need to do. A stunning amount of leaders either fail to do this properly or fuck it up by thinking something as vague as 'make a better product' is going to work, which leads to communication breakdowns from the get go.
As a leader it's your job to create and sustain communication flow
and if it stops it's on you.
The second aspect is to secure the buy-in from each of the followers. You need to understand each of the different personalities in your team, what they want from this outcome and how you can give it to them. Some people who work in a company want to make the most money they can, others want a new title, another set might want more holiday time. Understanding the needs and desires of each person allows you to motivate them in the right way.
As a leader, it's your job to make sure that the team has cohesion and direction. This doesn't mean that people don't argue or that there isn't conflict. What it means is that even in arguments and conflicts there is a sense of respect and a sense of togetherness that allows people to feel safe and motivated in a team environment.
2. Understanding Your Team.
Every person on your team is different and needs different things from you as their leader. They each have different levels of confidence and skills, they each have different levels of buy-in, they each have different levels of competence. Your job as a leader is to not only know all of these things but to understand how to motivate using them and manipulate your leadership style to fit each person's blueprint.
Some just need a quick direction and will then run off and do everything themselves. Some need coaching on some parts and free reign on others. Some will feel annoyed if you give them rules, others will feel terrified without any rules. Some need to hear feedback constantly, others will need to only hear kind words from you. This list is endless.
Each of these metrics must be deeply understood by a leader and inform their communication style constantly. It's like every human on the planet has their own unique key-hole buried inside them that if found and unlocked allows a person to flourish into their best self. It's up to the leader to figure the right key out, realising it'll always be in flux and make sure that person is flourishing.
Use this to empower people to become who they really want to be, that's what you're here for so you better be damn good at it. Challenge and support them to grow past their perspectives of themselves and they will follow you forever for it. Leadership in many ways is about letting go so let go and empower those around you.
A key mistake leaders often make is assuming people want to be motivated, given feedback and directed the same way the leader likes receiving all of those things. Don't do this. It's a stupid assumption that can cause a lot of problems. Lastly - don't be afraid to fire people or move them to another team. You're a leader, not a counsellor, and if people aren't swimming in the kool-aid send them somewhere else. Your team is too valuable to carry dead or toxic weight.
3. Ear to the Ground.
Understand that as a leader your experience of your world is radically different from those following you. You might be paid more, you might have more leeway, you might have greater access to the CEO. Each of these areas radically changes your perception of your work environment in a way that people following don't see.
You must understand the unique struggles of people on the ground and when you find something that they are unhappy with, go into bat for the team to make sure that the problem is resolved. We like to follow people who understand us and care for us so ensure that you do this. Talk to people on the ground or front lines, ask them what they are struggling with and give them permission to tell you how it really is. There are not many faster ways to gain the respect of a team than changing something they all dislike but didn't think was changeable.
4. Extreme Ownership and Fairness.
As a leader every single problem is your fault and your responsibility. All of them. Forever. No matter how strange or how little you contributed to it. It's on you and you must not just pass the blame onto a team. One of the most damaging things you can do for a team's cohesion is to blame other people for a problem or embarrass people in front of everyone else. As human beings, we are very protective of our reputation and threatening that in public is a great way to damage people and make everyone else fearful that they are next.
"If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent" is one of my favourite leadership saying and it's so true. It ties into fairness - you must be ruthlessly fair at all costs. Anytime someone sees you playing favourites or giving someone a promotion because of politics they will lose respect and sometimes try and actively undermine you. The best teams are always those that are run as a meritocracy. You should are judged on the ability to fit into the team and culture first and to do high-quality work second. That's all.
5. Solve Problems and Give Certainty.
When you strip away everything that a leader does, you're really there to solve problems, give certainty and build the environment. Don't waste time on things that don't fall under this umbrella. You're not there to get involved in politics. You're there to find problems whilst they are small and get rid of them. You're there to give people certainty in themselves and where they want to go.
Focus on building communication channels and rituals where you're able to do this. Have meetings to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Give people space to voice their opinion and listen to them. Speak confidently and give direction to people. Make sure people always feel confident enough to do their task. Focus focus focus. Too many leaders are diffusing their energy into shit that doesn't matter.
6. Don't Complain.
I hate complaining so much I don't even want to write anything here but if you're a leader don't complain again for the rest of your life or a panda will get murdered and then desecrated in its sleep because you're so soft. Complaining is for losers and will always lose you the respect of the people around you. Unless your going through some significant medical or real life trauma or hardship - don't complain... ESPECIALLY to those that follow you or about how hard leadership is.
7. Build the Environment
Lastly - it's on you as a leader to build the emotional environment of the team. How do the followers below you work best? What type of environment and group dynamic will create brilliance? All of these questions and more are not only your responsibility but it's also on you to figure out how to change it. Here's a hint: the rituals and language your team uses are critical to building a culture. Shared experiences, emotions and language will create a culture whether you like it or not. So use them to create a culture that you believe is best.
Part Two: The Two Styles
Style One: The Inspirational or Mission Driven Leader (MDL)
A Mission Driven Leader is an inspirational figure that's driving a team to achieve some sort of huge and audacious outcome. Think Moses, Joan of Arc, Bill Gates. My favourite example to think about when thinking of an MDL is Christopher Columbus AKA the most persuasive guy of all time. I think it's easy to gloss over what that guy did. He managed to convince a group of people that it was a good idea to put money into building a ship and then get HUMANS onto said ship to sail into the endless ocean, considered the end of the world at that time on his prediction that there might be land out there.
A prediction... Sailing into endless ocean. Literally end of the world... This is a big fucking deal. If you think about an MDL as one great sales job then he was the undisputed king of them all.
Imagine how much you'd have to believe in someone to invest or even join a mission to sail off literally the edge of the fucking MAP on the potential promise of finding land. Pack your shit, leave EVERYTHING behind because SOME GUY thinks there MIGHT BE more land. You think justifying your credit card spending is hard enough, imagine explaining that to your spouse or parents when you got home after having signed up to go.
What would a leader have to say to you to be able to get you to do something like this? What would they have to make you feel to want to buy into that? What would make you leave it all behind and trust this person?
This starts to help us understand what characteristics a mission driven leader needs to show to their followers.
The most important thing for an MDL by far is the level of certainty that they give to the people following them. Imagine if you walked into Columbus' room on the ship one time and caught him tripping out as he knew you were lost. Probably going to freak you out a bit. MDL's need to always have the direction, alway know what to do, and never, ever, EVER, show stress or fear or doubt to any of their followers.
They are the rock. A king (a perfect MDL example) doesn't ask for what he wants, he just does. He doesn't doubt himself, doesn't question whether he has the right answer, he just moves with certainty... always. This is the job of an MDL. As an MDL the nature of your task often means your followers won't have this level of certainty and so they need to feel it from you.
People who talk about how lonely it is as a leader do it for this reason... As an MDL you have to be separate from your followers to lead them effectively. You have to be able to have people's total confidence all of the time or they will leave you very quickly. If you're trying to lead me to a new country I've never been and I think you don't know where we are going or how we are going to do it I'm checking out of this little ordeal ASAP and will be very angry at you for betraying my trust.
You have to be separate because in many ways you're more of a symbol of something than a normal human being.
As an MDL - your job is to get people to obsessively and manically focus on the mission at hand and how we are going to get there. Steve Jobs did a pretty good job of this. He was a dick but he pushed people to excellence in the extreme. The methods of doing this driven this can vary drastically but they always revolve around the mission taking precedence over any one person or any relationship. Nothing matters but the mission and moving towards it at top speed. You have to be careful that you drive people in proportion to the rewards they think they will get to stop people quitting, but as an MDL the mission is also the most important focus.
MDL's do this by communicating the mission and why they need to accomplish it non stop at every moment. Studies have been done to show that leaders underestimate how much they need to communicate their mission to their followers 10X. Meaning all you MDL's reading this need to start talking about the what and the why literally 10 times more. It needs to be clear, concise and it needs to be fucking inspirational - which is why MDL's are usually very passionate people.
If I'm a follower of an MDL signing up for years of eating shit following you, you better damn well inspire me to do so.
An MDL also doesn't need to worry as much about using their authority or ordering people to do things. Telling people what to do is okay if you're going to take me to a new land where endless amounts of riches await. I'll stomach a lot of things to get to that place as a follower and so I'm willing to deal with a lot of things for you. You need to be fair - and you should try and minimise being an asshole- but you have a lot more leeway than a GDL does in this department.
MDL's usually struggle to admit that they are wrong and often walk the line between obsession and abuse in a way that drives people to leave. Think of Steve Jobs again. He was fired from Apple because his MDL arrogance and certainty became too much for the team. He had to adjust back towards being a human before being welcomed back the second time around. That second time he was able to drive people to built the biggest company in the world. That's the power of a balanced MDL.
The best MDL's are balanced by a streak of GDL in them. These are the leaders who make people insanely loyal to them. Napoleon is a great example of this. He was an MDL who went to great lengths to show that he was also a soldier like his followers. He paid ridiculous attention to the needs of his troops (building environment, ear to the ground) and heaped praise on them when needed (uniqueness) he used his authority all the time (certainty) he was very obsessive and mission focused (clarity) but he made sure that everyone felt respected, appreciated and seen (buy in.) This is huge as an MDL's opinion carries more weight than everyone else's combined so can be a great motivator to make people take action.
Napoleon was a god-like figure and also very human to his troops. This paradox created intense loyalty. They believe he would change their lives and also that he loved them and did the best by them. Wouldn't believing that about someone also create that loyalty within you? The troops were inspired by Napoleon the Emperor yet they loved Napoleon the man. He was an MDL who had enough GDL to create humanity. This is what caused people to actively die to win his favour. This level of complexity in style is what all great MDL's do.
Lastly - something that is so often overlooked by MDL's is the power of their closest subordinates. The people closest to the MDL often play a HUGE role in the success of failure and often give the human side to the followers that the MDL lacks. There are countless examples of an MDL and an amazing GDL working together (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg) and an MDL would do go to ensure that all of the GDL's that help them along the way feel respected, appreciated and taken care of. GDL's and first followers of an MDL are the most important linchpins to the early success of the mission.
Human or Goal Driven Leaders (GDL)
A Goal Driven or Human Leader has a much simpler and often less clear goal to move a team towards. A GDL is the authority in any group of people that have come together over time to attain something. Your friendship circle has a GDL. Your manager at work should be a GDL. Your family has a GDL (that might also me an MDL depending on how young your kids are.) In some groups, the leader can change but recognise that in any group there is always one person who has a greater level of authority than everyone else.
A GDL's job is extremely different to that of an MDL in that a GDL often doesn't have an obvious reason for their authority in the way that an MDL does. It's worth taking a few seconds to make sure you really understand that last sentence. Why should your manager be in charge of you? Why should one friend get more say than everyone else? Why does your mum or dad get to tell you to eat more vegetables?
Often times the answer to these keys are 'it's just the way it is' or 'she's more confident than me' or 'they are my parents/boss.' These are pretty flimsy reasons to base authority off when compared to 'he is going to take us to the new world' or 'she is the Queen of my country.' This has a huge impact on how GDL's need to relate to the people they are leading.
They can't go around bandying about their authority asking people salute or making demands of people or they'll rapidly run into people questioning why they are the leader in the first place. GDL's need to earn the respect and permission to be a leader from their followers. They need to never presume too much and always ensure they are not trying to put themselves above anyone else. Unless you're actually fucking Napoleon don't start acting like him. A lot of GDL's do this once they get a taste of power and it leads to bad times.
The biggest thing for a GDL to focus on is being a good and normal human being. They need to be likeable, warm, very caring, open to feedback and to try and never use their authority to be an asshole. For this reason, a GDL's best bet is always persuasion over ordering. A GDL should do their best to make sure that everyone understands why they are making the decisions they are, why the change is being made and then persuading people to follow suit. This doesn't mean a GDL doesn't have to be hard at times or put their foot down, but they should try and use it only as a last resort.
The best GDL's focus on each person's unique needs in the group and as a person, they are empathetic, tend to do most decision making by checking with you to see if that works and try and avoid forcing you to do things at all costs. The VERY best GDL's are such good people and so kind and inspirational that they become a mini MDL and people crave their compliments, kind words and appreciation because of how much they have done for the group. These are the leaders which we just love being around and feel a massive loyalty towards and is something that cannot easily be replaced. This is your long term aim BD5.
Part Three: Putting Yourself Into This
So BD5 - this is a pretty comprehensive introduction to how I see leadership and should give you more than enough to start becoming a better leader. That said, you need to recognise that you're a unique human being, with a unique environment and personality and so make sure that you adapt all of this to fit your own needs.
Maybe you only lead a team of 3 people. If that's the case then being an MDL probably isn't a good idea, as they tend to be needed as a team size scales more. Maybe you're in a situation where everyone needs to be motivated by constant positive feedback (90% of people fit this BTW) or in a place where people need rules to know what to do. You might be leading people that are older than you and as a 25 year old might have to get comfortable calling that out to get these people to respect you.
It's unique to you. Make you you adapt all of this to what feels right for you.
Injecting yourself and your own method of relating to people into this is critical, so take the time to realise that you'll grow into your own version of a leader as long as you keep trying. As always - read books of people you want to emulate and only take advice on leadership from people you want to lead like and you'll be setting yourself up for victory.
Until next week, MJ.