On Motivation & Leadership

As the leader of a team, I often read books and articles about subjects related to my role: leadership, management, in-house design, etc. I feel it is my responsibility to improve upon my abilities as a leader—to understand how to do my job better, to avoid and/or remedy problems, to be a source of inspiration, and of course to keep my team happy and motivated. While I don’t consider myself the best leader ever, I hope I’m doing a good job, and I certainly do make a concerted effort rather than lackadaisically resting on my laurels.

The topic of motivation in the workplace is hot right now. The world at large is trying to reform how it does business in the interest of efficiency and better productivity. In my view, proper motivation is not about more frequent output, but about more effective output. I think this is where a lot of the authors and thinkers and bloggers and drinkers are off course, actually—they think a motivated workforce will produce more, whereas I believe a motivated workforce will producebetter, and it’s not only about keeping people happy. It’s actually just good business.

There are some elements that I believe go into a good leader which I strive to achieve, and I think the best leaders I’ve had the pleasure of working with or knowing have also exhibited many of these traits. In typical internet fashion, the following serves as your easily-digested list, ripe for retweeting:

1. A Good Leader is Understanding

Understanding, empathy, sympathy, easy-going—these are some words that all basically mean the same thing: you trust your team. One of the worst things a leader can do is distrust his team. When a leader hires somebody, he has decided that this person will be a good fit, and in that way they deserve immediate trust. They have earned it by getting the job. Yes, they can destroy the trust through their actions as sometimes happens, but I don’t believe that trust should take a particular period of time to acquire.

Trust in the workplace should be automatic.

That means that when one of my team members is running late, I trust they’re actually running late and will be to work as soon as they can. When a team member isn’t feeling well, I trust that they’re actually not feeling well. When a team member is assigned a project, I trust they will do their best on that project. Team members do not require hand-holding and do not require somebody looking over their shoulders. They are adults, and they are here because they want to do great work.

It also means I trust in their skillsets. More on that next.

2. A Good Leader Hires People Better Than Him

Everybody on my team is better than me in some way. It sounds foolish that a person would want to hire lesser-skilled employees than him, doesn’t it? Yet, this happens all the time. I want my team and I to do great work, and they can’t do that if they’re not great at what they do. On that note, trusting that they are great at what they do, and that they know what they are doing, is also important.

3. A Good Leader is Experienced and Educated in What They Lead

In other words, as a leader one should be well-versed in that which they lead. It is difficult for a team to trust and respect its leader if that leader doesn’t understand what they do on a deep level.

4. A Good Leader Plays to Strengths, yet Diversifies

Like I’ve stated, every person on my team is well-versed in some area. I think a good leader understands those strengths and assigns work and projects which suit those strengths. I also think a good leader understands each member’s weaknesses and looks for opportunities to turn those weaknesses into strengths. It is certainly true that we can’t always do exactly what we want to do all the time, but it’s worth trying.

5. A Good Leader is Emotionally Stable

Yelling, losing one’s temper, demeaning others, crying over small matters, calling names, walking out in anger and slamming doors—these are some actions that I and many others have experienced or heard about. It’s difficult to respect a leader that isn’t cool-headed. It’s also difficult to know where you stand with a leader who rides an emotional roller coaster day in and day out.

How will he come to work today? Will he be angry or will he be happy? Is it okay if I talk to him today or should I wait? Maybe I should wait. Oh what’s that? He’s happy? Oh, so I can talk to him?
This type of behavior is nothing short of damaging to a team. It damages morale, it damages productivity, and it damages trust.

I’ve actually worked for somebody who was emotionally unstable. It was years and years ago, but his actions stuck with me. I remember him calling over a co-worker and literally yelling in her face. He told her how dumb she was, he told her what a horrible job she was doing, he told her a child could do better work. That was the second I knew I didn’t want to work there anymore. I lost all interest in the work, and it showed.

A leader might be stressed out, under enormous pressure, with too many things to do, but he shouldn’t take it out on his employees.

6. A Good Leader Fights for His Team

I don’t believe a good leader necessarily agrees with everything his team does or says, nor do I believe a good leader aquiesces to the whims of others outside of his team. Certainly there is a balance one must strike, but as often as possible a good leader should back up his team and support them—in their opinions, in their personal endeavors, in their struggles, in their dreams.

7. A Good Leader is Not Above His Team

I’ve written about this topic before and I think it still rings true. While a leader may be the leader, it does not mean he is above doing grunt work. A good leader does both the glamorous and the unglamorous work. Equality is important. If you’re the leader of a team of telemarketers, you should also be making calls like the rest of them. If you are the principal of a school, you should scrub the toilets with the janitors. If you manage a design team, you should do the small and boring projects too.

8. A Good Leader Knows that Interesting Work Equals Better Work

If one cannot make a project interesting, one should find ways of changing or improving the project to make it interesting. If a designer is interested in the project, if he has enthusiasm and big ideas for the project, then he will do better work and be proud of what he has done. Focusing on frequent output over quality output has proven to be the wrong way of doing things.

9. A Good Leader Gives Credit Where it’s Due

I have worked with people who take all the credit for themselves when I was the one who did the work. Do you know how that made me feel? It made me feel like somebody had stolen something from me. I don’t know if they stole my glory, necessarily, but they certainly killed my spirit. For this reason I try to properly bestow credit whenever I can and I think others should do the same.

10. A Good Leader is a Human Being

Putting leaders on a pedestal is dangerous because leaders are only human. Leaders make mistakes just like everybody else. Most people understand this, of course. Yet, when a leader acts like he is infallible, when he pretends that his mistakes were intentional or that his actions should not be questioned, he is damaging his team’s respect and morale.

In my view, a leader should not pretend he is deserving of leadership, but rather that his position as leader has to be earned from his employees.

11. A Good Leader Trumpets the Positive, Privately Handles the Negative

When an employee does great work, a good leader lets that person know. But it doesn’t stop there. A good leader also tells others how great the work was. When an employee messes up, a good leader handles it privately and does not share the failure with others.

Where is This Going? Seriously.

The aspects of leadership which I have described above are, as mentioned, something I strive to achieve. A good leader builds good teams—teams that are happy, healthy, and enthused. Happy teams produce better work, and happy employees have far less desire to leave. When work is great and employee turnover is drastically low, businesses thrive. After all, it is not only our duty as fellow human beings to make one another happy, it saves money when employees remain on board because finding and training new employees costs a lot—in time, in money, and in lost productivity.

In my view, it’s just good business to lead well.

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