Any skill is built off foundational principles.
If you want to become good at something, you need to learn the principles and build off them. If you ignore the principles, you will never become great at that skill.
It’s the same with leadership. To be a great leader, you need to learn and follow the principles of leadership.
I have spent countless hours reading books and synthesizing information on leadership (and still doing so). Here are 12 key principles that I have found to be important for every leader to know.
(For the definition of leadership, make sure to check out the article The REAL Definition of Leadership (That You Need to Know Right Now))
Table of Contents
1. Focus on building influence (not using your position)
John Maxwell and many other authors discuss the importance of influence as a leader. Without influence, you can’t lead.
What is influence?
Influence is the relationship and respect that you build with others that causes them to want to act with and for you.
Why is this important?
Well, first, you can’t use your position or authority to lead. Don’t get me wrong, you can sometimes use your authority to get people to do something, but you are forcing them, not leading them.
When you use position only, your effectiveness in that position will be severely limited. People will just do what is required of their job duties and what your authority allows. They won’t go above and beyond.
Influence causes people to willingly and wantingly (yes, I know, not a word) to act with and for you, because of that relationship and because of that respect.
Influence is one of the key reasons that you don’t have to have a position to lead – you can build influence with people whether you have a leadership position or not.
Influence comes from trust, your relationship with your team, competence, and other similar factors. If you want to learn more about how to grow your influence with your team, read this article here (after this one, of course).
2. You must be someone your team can trust
Trust and integrity are vital.
Without trust, your influence on your team will be incredibly limited. Why?
Think about it: If your team can’t trust you, why would they follow you?
Think about your boss or a boss you’ve had. If you can’t trust what they say or that they will follow through on their word, how much influence would they have with you?
If you knew they were a person who talked about people behind their back, if you couldn’t rely on them that they would complete or do what they said they would do, how much influence would they have on you?
Probably not much.
You need to be a person your team can trust.
Be a person who tells the truth and follows through on what you say you will do. Be a person they can rely on. Don’t share information about others you shouldn’t. Don’t cut corners. Act with integrity even when no one is looking.
Being a trustworthy person won’t by itself make you a great leader, but you will be severely limited as a leader without it.
3. Trust your team
Part of trust as a leader isn’t only being trustworthy, it’s giving trust to your team.
It’s setting clear expectations, providing the support and training your team needs, and releasing them to do the work.
It’s setting direction and guidelines and trusting your team to make good decisions and solve problems.
And, it’s being there to help them learn and grow and supporting them throughout the process.
You want to be a leader who is not only trustworthy but who shows trust.
4. Take ownership & responsibility
As a person you are responsible for everything you do and for your actions, responses, and results. As a leader, you are responsible for all you do and for everything your team does.
You are responsible.
Great leaders take ownership. When a failure happens, they take ownership of that failure and work to learn from it, fix it, and work to keep it from happening again.
Poor leaders blame. They look to outside sources for the cause. They may blame their team, other departments, or external factors.
When you cast blame, it makes you weak as a leader. It builds ill will with others, you lose influence, and it keeps you from solving the problem.
5. Maintain the right motive and mentality
While his book is mainly focused on CEOs, his principles apply across the board to any kind of leader in any kind of position.
The question you need to ask is, “Why do I want to be a leader?”
Some lead for selfish reasons. It’s about them. They may think the position is a reward for all their hard work.
They may do it for the money, the perks, their career, or the respect they gain for it. It’s all about them. With this mentality can come an attitude that your people are there to serve you or even that you are above those “below” you.
You are likely not to do the hard work of leadership because it’s not about the mission or the team, it’s about you. You are more likely focused on doing what’s comfortable to you, not what is needed.
The other (and correct) mentality is one of service.
Great leaders aren’t about themselves; they are about the team and the mission. Their mentality is not one of being served but serving. They are about serving their team to help best accomplish the mission. Because of that, they don’t think of themselves as “above” their team.
They do the hard work that is required of leadership. They hold their team accountable. They say and do what needs to be said, regardless of their “status” or wanting to be liked.
So, again, the question for you is, “What is your motive?” Are you about service, or are you about being served? Are you about yourself, or are you about the mission and the team?
Your motive will determine your effectiveness as a leader.
6. Communicate well (this includes listening)
Great communication helps build trust and influence, keeps people informed, and it helps everyone make better decisions and do their jobs better. It motivates, helps everyone (including you) grow and get better, causes problems to be solved faster, and it gives you great ideas on how to improve and innovate.
A lack of communication hurts trust. When you withhold information or take too long to reveal what needs to be said, people feel you are hiding something. Often they will create their own versions, and we as humans, unfortunately, often assume the worst.
When you don’t listen, people are less motivated and engaged. They take less ownership of what they do.
You also get less ideas on how to improve, mistakes and problems are hidden, and you have less growth and impact as a leader and organization.
Be a leader who communicates well. Don’t hide information. Share it freely.
If it’s important, “overcommunicate” it. Communicate in a way that is clear.
And listen well.
Listening helps your team feel heard and understood, helps grow ownership and engagement, reveals problems, helps you make better decisions, generates great ideas, and has many more benefits.
Make sure listening is a major part of what you do as a leader.
7. Build relationships with and care about your people
This is a major part of building influence. If you don’t care about your people or take the time to get to know them or learn about them, your influence will be severely limited.
Sometimes people think that it’s only about results and see employees as tools for those results. They see relationships and care as a waste of time.
However, when you have that mentality, it hurts engagement, morale, and productivity. You actually get better results by caring about your people.
Some think that you can’t build relationships with people AND hold them accountable to high expectations.
That’s wrong thinking. You can. In fact, if you care about people, you want them to do and be their best, so you WOULD hold them to high expectations.
Build relationships with your team and care about them. Get to know them and their goals.
This will help you build influence and grow a more productive team.
8. Do the hard work of leadership
Leadership (done right) isn’t easy. As we discussed in the motive section, leadership isn’t about you. It is about serving the mission and the team.
And to do that, you must do the hard work of leadership. You must have the hard conversations. You must keep your team accountable. You must deal with problems and make hard decisions.
You must avoid the pressure to make quick decisions when you should wait. You must overcome the pressure to do what’s convenient or popular and do what’s right.
You must speak up with the truth, even when it’s hard.
You are responsible for your team and its results.
Don’t let fear, insecurity, ego, the desire to be liked, or the avoidance of the uncomfortable keep you from doing the work you need to do.
Do the hard work of a leader.
9. Build safe cultures
The culture of an organization (or your team) is created by the leader. The culture also helps determine the results the team or organization gets, the morale of the team, the turnover, the engagement, and the innovation and ideas that occur.
Many leaders build cultures of fear. They are about compliance. Their focus is on setting rules and catching their team doing wrong instead of focusing on supporting them and helping them to succeed in their jobs.
In many of these cultures, people fear speaking up, asking for help, or sharing mistakes and problems because they fear the response of those in charge. If you make a mistake, you are punished for it. If you share a problem, you may get backlash for it.
So what does the team do? They hunker down, do what’s easy (to avoid mistakes), and hide any mistakes and problems that are happening.
People become about self-preservation instead of pursuing excellence.
This kills engagement, morale, productivity, and more. Problems stay hidden and mistakes aren’t revealed. Innovation is not likely to occur.
You want to build a culture of safety.
You want your team to feel safe speaking up, asking for help, sharing mistakes, and revealing problems. You may even thank them when they do speak up.
You want people to feel safe disagreeing and giving feedback, even to you. You want people to feel free to take risks and innovate, knowing that you aren’t there to get them for making a mistake but are there to support and help them in their job.
You are about learning from mistakes, not punishing them.
Build a safe culture, and you will build a more engaged, productive, and innovative team.
10. Never stop learning (and have a growth mindset)
Leadership is like any other skill: the more you practice, the more you learn, the better you get. And, just like any other skill, it takes time.
It’s a process.
You don’t pick up a guitar and know how to play like Jimi Hendrix in one day. You don’t take a class or read a book on leadership and suddenly become an expert at leadership.
It doesn’t work that way.
Great leaders are always learning. They have a growth mindset.
They aren’t focused on maintaining an image or status, they are focused on learning, doing better, and leading better every day.They may read books and articles, listen to podcasts and audiobooks, or take courses and go to conferences.
They ask for feedback from others so they can grow, from their own bosses and from their team.
If you think you’ve arrived, you haven’t.
Never stop learning and growing as a leader.
11. Act with humility (and be vulnerable)
He said that these leaders weren’t about themselves or their ego, they were about the mission. They didn’t try to take the credit for themselves, they passed the credit on to others.
Being humble, and being vulnerable, are important for your effectiveness as a leader.
What does this entail?
It means admitting mistakes when you make them. It means admitting something when you don’t know.
It means that you know you don’t have all the answers and that others may have better ideas than you. It means knowing your idea may not be the best idea.
It means an attitude of service. It’s putting others over your ego. It’s giving credit to others instead of trying to take it all yourself.
Be a leader who’s humble.
12. Give direction
Part of leadership is guiding people toward the accomplishment of a goal or vision. If you are at the top of your company, you are the one (or one of them) who sets the goals and direction of the company.
However, even if you aren’t on top of the company, you can still guide people toward a goal. If your company has a mission and goals it’s pursuing, it’s okay that you didn’t create them. You can own them and lead your team toward them.
And, within your team, you can create goals that help your team move toward the main vision or goal of your company.
However it happens, you need to have a direction you are pursuing and be guiding your people toward that direction.
If all you are doing is building relationships with your people, but not moving anywhere, then you aren’t really leading.
13. Grow other leaders
Part of being a great leader is growing other leaders.
As you grow as a leader, you want to start developing other leaders on your team and within your organization. This is important for a number of reasons.
First, sometimes people think that when they leave and things fall apart without them, that means they are a good leader.
However, it really means you did a poor job growing your team. Great leaders develop their people and prepare for succession. Their goal is for their team or organization to continue to run well without them.
Succession is vital for any organization.
It’s also important because the better the leaders you have throughout an organization, the better your organization will run. You’ll have greater engagement, greater results, and less turnover and waste.
It can also affect you as a leader. Especially if you are hoping to move up within the company, and no one below you can take your place for you to move up, it could be harder for you to be promoted.
Be about developing other leaders.
You can be a great leader
Leadership isn’t something you are born with. It’s a skill you can learn and do.
These are some of the key principles that will make you an effective leader:
- Focus on building influence (not using your position)
- You must be someone your team can trust
- Trust your team
- Take ownership & responsibility
- Maintain the right motive and mentality
- Communicate well (this includes listening)
- Build relationships with and care about your people
- Do the hard work of leadership
- Build safe cultures
- Never stop learning (and have a growth mindset)
- Act with humility (and be vulnerable)
- Give direction
- Grow other leaders
Follow them, learn them, and practice them, and the impact you have as a leader will grow tremendously.