Confession. I love to write about big names in the news because you love to read about them. Admittedly, writing about Elon Musk is wearing thin on me. Sharing lessons from Warren Buffett is not.

The Oracle of Omaha continues to impress at the ripe young age of 88, and he continued his hot streak with his annual letter (released Saturday--full text here). Here's what Buffett wrote that caught my eye, while referring to Tony Nicely, the recently retired CEO of GEICO:

By my estimate, Tony's management of GEICO has increased Berkshire's intrinsic value by more than $50 billion. On top of that, he is a model for everything a manager should be, helping his 40,000 associates to identify and polish abilities they didn't realize they possessed.

I've heard many things about what the ideal manager, leader, or boss does. While Buffett's claim here doesn't include every trait that makes for a role model leader, his sentiment hits one important note: He identifies the one trait that separates the very best leaders from the just very good ones.

Leaders that help employees build on their strengths and help them discover new ones are at the top of the leadership mountain. It's this ability to help others climb using skills they didn't know they had that sets such leaders apart.

You too can nicely fit a Tony Nicely-like approach into your leadership toolbox. Here are four ways to help your people uncover and upgrade skills they didn't know they had:

1. Apply the "401k framework."

If you want to help others uncover greatness, you have to be close enough to them to spot it yourself. This requires a commitment to making daily little investments in your employees--like you make small, continual investments in your 401k over time.

By far, these investments I've made as a leader have been far more valuable than any ones that ever showed up on a stock ticker. The commitment to consistency allows you to see strengths below the surface and helps you understand what's getting in the way of your people recognizing and developing them of their own accord.

Yes, maintaining a drumbeat of investing in your people is hard. It comprises notes in the orchestral job that is leadership--notes that the very best role-model mavens play.

2. Consciously uplift their self-esteem and confidence.

We often don't see strengths in ourselves because the fevered pitch of our debilitating inner-dialogue is drowning out our power of observation. When you infuse self-confidence in others, the path to self-betterment opens up.

Remind your employees to stop comparing themselves to others--the only comparison that matters is to who you were yesterday. Help them learn from their failures and accept that they aren't perfect. Get them focused on their potential, not their limitations. Ask their opinions, listen, and act on their answers.

And remind them of the piece of advice I share more frequently than any other: Strive for authenticity, not approval. 

3. Crush barriers with glee.

The journey to discovering your full potential is littered with enough obstacles. When a manager can pummel obstacles in the way of their employees, it's like taking the hammer of Thor to self-doubt.

Go beyond merely removing barriers, though. Be a zealot. I'm convinced some of the best managers I ever had actually giggled with joy when they discovered someone was impeding my progress on a key project. They jumped in with zeal to smash (with a velvet fist, of course) a co-worker into line who wasn't being helpful to me. Barrier removed. Progress continued. That progress helped new strengths of mine emerge.  

While you're at it, remove yourself as a barrier by defining and giving employees as much decision-space as you can muster. Doing so gets the employee to work things out for themselves and forces them to use all of their abilities. New abilities emerge too. 

4. Help them challenge assumptions.

So many hidden strengths are buried under the weight of our assumptions. We assume what we can and can't do, what we're good at, what we're capable of. Sometimes people need help questioning those assumptions.

Ask your employees why they believe their assumptions are true and gaping holes in logic will quickly appear. Remind them that most assumptions are based on past history. Yes, you have to regard the past--but don't disregard what may have changed about yourself.

Assumptions are just hypotheses. Hypotheses are supported or dismissed by facts. Facts arise when you have actual experience with trying and working at something you previously assumed you'd never be good at.

The kind of people who dive into leadership lessons from thoughtleaders are already good leaders. But you, dear reader, can be one of the very best. Unearth that which lays buried in others, and you'll surface at the peak.

Published on: Feb 28, 2019
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