20 Ways to Become a Better Leader Right Now

Good leaders don't just happen overnight. I should know. I spent a decade trying to be one.

It all started in 2001.

My role as a leader in business had reached a pivotal point. I was managing about 50 people in three large teams, just a couple of positions away from the CEO of a major retailer, making a nice income and eating out almost every day for lunch.

And, before landing this director-level role in the mid-1990s, I worked as a project manager at a small startup and managed a graphics, quality assurance, and product design team.

It was quite a wild ride.

Then, after 9/11, it all came crashing down. I ended up leaving the corporate world partly because of my own failures and partly because of economic pressures in my field.

Over the past 13 years working as a journalist, I've talked to thousands of company founders, business consultants, and leadership gurus about what it takes to lead a company. Usually, during these interviews and meetups, I've nodded in agreement after recognizing the successes and failures during my own corporate tenure.

Looking back, I've decided to chronicle what I learned as a leader during this time. These tips come mostly from my own experience. If I ever had a chance to go back in time, I'd make sure to apply each one of these. What do you think? Which ones do you apply?

1. Apologize without hesitation

It took many years for me to realize how saying "I'm sorry" can help. For years, I thought leadership meant insulating myself from my subordinates and hiding any weaknesses. If I made a mistake, I'd pretend it was just a misunderstanding or someone else's fault. If you fess up quickly, people working for you will respect you more and follow directions.

2. Admit when you don't know every answer

Not admitting my mistakes came from a sense of superiority and pride. I thought, I'm the leader so I must be right. I now understand leadership differently. It's a servant role. And like anyone in business, you are never going to have all of the answers. Revealing you are human is helpful; good leaders go and find the answers the team needs.

3. Analyze first, then act

It takes time to collect information, and there's a sense in leadership that you need to move quickly. We are paid to respond and act, not to sit back and wait for someone else to solve problems. Yet I made the mistake of acting before analyzing. In a few cases, I even approved projects, new hires, and direction before getting 100% of the data.

4. Train others only when you really know the topic

I'm trained as a writer and designer, so it was easy to pass on this knowledge to my team. At times, I'd try to train them in other areas, like testing for bugs in a software program or in HR issues. I should have found an expert to do the training.

5. Be quick with positive feedback, slow with criticism

It sounds corny, and maybe you can overdo this one, but I honestly believe many employees in young companies need constant encouragement. We live in complex, competitive times and people are inundated with too many tasks and not enough time. Technology and business life can be overwhelming, so it's important to point out any "wins" no matter how small. And, if you do have to criticize, think seriously about the impact first.

6. Ask personal questions

One of my greatest challenges as a leader had to do with my introverted personality. I didn't share enough about myself, my family life, and my aspirations for the team. (I've since realized how being hyper-focused and analytical by nature also helped me get promoted and were probably my greatest strengths.) I wish I had tried to understand my team's personal motivations more and relate on a personal level.

7. Embrace failure on projects

Here's an interesting one. During my tenure as an upper-level manager, I tended to avoid failure at all costs. Early on, I started a company on my own that went belly up. So, in the corporate world, I shunned any trace of failure--even if it meant letting projects go on too long. I was right about having an attitude of success, but wrong about the micro-failures. Good managers pull the plug at precisely the right time to free up staff for better things.

8. Hire for potential

I wish I had spent more time studying résumés for clues about potential rather than their narrow skillset as listed on a sheet of paper. I should have looked for things like an interest in hang-gliding or animal rescue as a sign that the person was ambitious and daring. I should have questioned the overly detailed résumé that listed everything about previous work assignments but nothing about risk-taking or aspirations for growth.

9. Fire for negligence

I wasn't too bad at firing people when they were negligent, and I mostly handled them well. In most cases, I went through all the proper steps to build consensus first with HR, create a paper trail to show how I had tried to work through the issues with the employee, and address problems head-on. Yet, I can recall a few instances when I should have moved even faster on the dismissal. Why? Because those troublemakers were bringing down the team as a whole. As a leader, I should have protected my employees more.

10. Mentor intentionally

I had great success with mentoring. During my time as a corporate leader, I met with my direct reports one on one on a regular basis, gave specific feedback about their work performance, and just got to know them better. I should have been even more intentional about it. It's not about how often we met but how much I delved into work issues.

11. Share good ideas quickly and often

Ideas came to me in a flash, but sometimes I'd held them back. Why? I'm not sure. In meetings, I stayed silent at times because I didn't want to overshadow anyone else on the team. Most of those good ideas were lost in a vapor cloud. More important, they could have spurred others on and fostered a better dialogue.

12. Promote slowly

Here's one that proved to be a major detriment. If I could go back, I'd promote people a little more slowly because there were times when the person was not ready. By waiting, I could have mentored that individual more and trained him or her on how to handle the added responsibility.

13. Don't just communicate: Facilitate

At the time, I convinced myself I had to communicate more with my team leads about "best practices" and "company direction" but the truth is, I should have demonstrated the ideas instead. I should have helped team members reach goals and paved the way for them by my example. It's the difference between just giving information versus nurturing growth.

14. Reward creativity, not mindless task completion

There were times when I rewarded employees monetarily or with recognition when they finished a task on a project. That's always expected in the workplace. Yet, by rewarding task completion, I was making a subtle suggestion that I expected employees not to finish things on time. Instead, I should have rewarded them for finding workarounds, thinking creatively, finishing early, and working out of the box.

15. Let organizational change create opportunities

I used to fight organizational changes with every ounce of my being. (Those who know me would agree--there are a lot of ounces when you're over 6-feet tall.) I viewed an org chart as my enemy. What I didn't realize is that org chart changes create opportunities for leaders. We can adapt and grow once we know how things are changing. We get a clearer picture of what the company is trying to do. It's a cheat sheet for better leadership.

16. Nurture allies at work intentionally

Leadership is often seen as a solo effort. It's not. The best leaders have friends and allies at work who provide counsel and advice. I needed more of them. I do remember having a few co-workers who tried to give me advice, but I had the mindset of a lone wolf leader and tuned it out. If anything, it's critical to look for this feedback as a development step.

17. Revel in success

I have learned over the years that a big success on a team is something to cherish and relish when it happens. When my team scored a big project, we should have celebrated with banana splits and trumpet parades all around the office. By not reveling as much, we probably zapped the motivation to push harder on the next project.

18. Focus on the goals, not the budget

Late in my corporate career, I spent countless hours tweaking budgets and moving numbers around in a spreadsheet. Fun times! Because of my attitude about spending money, I viewed the value of an employee in monetary terms. If I did it all over again, I'd view employees first and only as individuals with creative ideas that add value.

19. Address the hardest leadership challenges first

There's a tendency in any job to do the easiest tasks first. Duh! They are the easiest! It's always nice to look like we're getting more done each week and clearing up our time for the harder challenges in the workplace. In leadership, that's a big mistake. That troublemaker on your team? The drop in sales after a marketing snafu? A big tax change? Address those problems first to free up your time to lead better the rest of the week.

20. Start your meetings by sharing something personal

It's okay to get personal--just not too personal. There's no need to explain how the dog is sick or how your car is on the fritz. That's not what I mean. In a meeting, it's okay to quickly share a few personal tidbits about your kids or a recent vacation. Don't just jump right into the budget report or the customer wins. Let your employees know more about you and that you exist as a person outside of work. They will know you are human.

Last updated: Aug 29, 2014

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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