There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us. Whether they're individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves.

The idea of being a leader always appealed to me. I held my first management position at 22, leading a small production team in a bookbindery. I loved being in charge--and the challenge to motivate my team through good communication and decision making. But one day, I heard a comment I've never forgotten. After chastising a line worker for a mistake, he snapped back:

You know, you're the type of manager the rest of us hate.

A comment like that stops you in your tracks. I remember standing there for a few seconds, just processing it. Is that true? I remember thinking. Who else feels that way?

That moment led to various occasions of self-reflection over the years. I'd ask questions like: Why do I want to be the leader? How do others respond to my leadership style?

The fact is, we all have to lead at some point. Some are thrust into positions of authority whether they like it or not, like the couple who suddenly discover they will become parents. Some professionals are required to lead in their daily work (teachers and doctors, for example). Others are looking to lead in order to promote ideals and values they feel strongly about, and to guide others who share those values.

So many circumstances call for capable leadership. So how can you lead effectively?

Work hard to do the following:

1. Set the example.

Let's say you ask me how to get somewhere you've never been before. I could outline step by step directions, draw you a map, even provide details about landmarks to look out for.

Or I could say: 'That's not too far out of my way. Why don't you just follow me?'

Value statements and culture decks are often abstract and ineffective. And 'Do as I say, not as I do' never works: You can preach respect and integrity until you're blue in the face, but it won't mean anything when you curse out a member of your team.

On the contrary, when you work hard to show others what you believe in, they'll naturally follow.

2. Be humble.

Boss #1: Makes a mistake. When it's exposed, he/she refuses to admit it or tries to blame someone else.

Boss #2: Realizes he/she isn't perfect. After recognizing a mistake, they readily admit and learn from it.

Who would you prefer to work for?

President, director, Mom and Dad. 'Leaders' are no more perfect than followers. Owning up to that inspires respect.

Additionally, don't be afraid to reach out to your team for help. This humanizes you, and helps create an environment where people learn from each other.

3. Praise sincerely.

Praise and recognition can be motivating and inspiring--if they are authentic and specific.

Here's how to start: Pick one or two employees a day and tell them something specific you've valued about their work (e.g., the way they handled a project or problem or a specific quality you saw in action). Tell them how and why you found their actions so beneficial. The more details, the better.

Authenticity is key. Don't just go through the motions, checking people off a list. The goal is to instinctively recognize and appreciate the efforts of others--and communicate that appreciation consistently. (For more about building an authentic praise culture at work, read this.)

4. Be kind, but not weak.

Sincere praise is extremely important, but so is corrective feedback. Refusing to address an individual's major problems doesn't help him or her to grow. It also amounts to your tacit approval of subpar performance.

If a person's behavior adversely affects coworkers, refusal to take action is unfair and will gradually destroy your culture.

Be constructive, yet direct, with your criticism--no feedback sandwich. (When you've been effective at applying point three, point four becomes much easier.)

5. Delegate.

Micromanagement 101 states: If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.

But what happens when you're not around?

Proper delegation, on the other hand, will achieve the following:

  • You 'create' time you can spend on other activities equally or more important
  • Employees gain additional skills and experience
  • You can observe how employees perform under different circumstances
  • You demonstrate trust in the individual, which strengthens your relationship

When done effectively, delegating brings benefits to everyone.

6. Learn to listen.

No one ever learned anything while speaking.

When you listen skillfully to employees, you stay in touch with the reality of your company. You become quickly aware of new problems and how your people are dealing with them.

Additionally, you send the message that what's important to them is important to you. Your advice carries more weight, because it's based on reality.

Forget about being 'a leader'. It's only a title, and one that's not good for much. We're all faced with opportunities to lead, so focus on leading effectively.

Those who follow will do so, not because they have to, but because they want to.

Published on: May 14, 2015
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