What I learned from the best leaders in my career

The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority

TL;DR

If you google Leadership styles or how to be a great manager you’ll get served with tons of advice, leaderships styles, tips, tricks, and tons of quotes. Assuming your Google skills are on point, it feels like a waste for me to repeat (though see my favorite reads, at the end of this article).

This article is about the skills great leaders possess and a more personal reflection, and tribute to three leaders who managed to coach and enable me to bring my best to the game. I’ll show how they did this and why I am gratefully to them for it. I encourage you to master these skills.

Get to know me

So here I am, a what is called seasoned (got nothing to do with spices) professional in the career game.

I have been blessed to lead teams, and I have worked for >15 Bosses, Managers and Leaders. It made me reflect on what made it that some of them stood out and allowed me to go the extra mile, deliver beyond expectation (for them to judge if I managed), and grow my professional skills and capabilities?

Definitions: (1) Boss: Someone who treats communication in a one-way direction, top-down. You will learn to keep your head down and do what you're told (2) Manager: Someone who directs and guides in an effort to get a person to deliver best results. (3) Leader: Someone who is exceptional in understanding, enabling and inspiring people to work toward future goals and why these goals matter.

So yippie ki yay, here is how three leaders had a significant positive impact on my leadership style, by looking at how I started working for them, and what it was they did that made them freaking awesome inspirational leaders to work for. 

(if any of my other managers read this, please realize I liked almost all of you :-))

"People prefer to follow those who help them, not those who intimidate them." - C. Gene Wilkes

Leader #1: The believer

Leader 1: The believer

Act 1: Hired for attitude

When applying for the position with this leader, I was taking my career into a different direction. I had zero experience in what was asked for the position. My leader took a chance on me and hired me for attitude. 

I remember the leader one time telling me that, he’d rather have someone who can’t do it but wants to, than someone who can but doesn’t have the will to do it themselves.

Act 2: Work hard, get total flexibility

The leader valued predictability and consistency in delivery, I was given a lot of trust from the start. It made me want to ensure that trust wasn’t lost. When delivering, delivery was rewarded, with full flexibility, which made me want to too proof myself even more. 

Don’t mind you, of course sometimes things didn’t always meet expectations. Times when it didn’t I was provided support, and guidance on the why of the delivery, leaving “how” completely up to me. 

Thinking back to this time, especially being a young professional, this was the perfect situation. I worked for a leader who understood me as a person and knew how to enable me to bring my best self. I went through a step learning curve, which I still am grateful for. 

In addition, when the time was there to move to a new position, my leader was a big advocate within the organization to make sure I landed in a good role. There was absolutely no incentive for my leader to do that, but I surely appreciated that.

Act 3: The advocate

This leader was an amazing advocate. Someone who figured out how I operated as a person, and enabled me to get the best out of myself. A leader who pushed me and made sure the company knew about me and my achievements. Someone who didn’t think in hierarchies, and acted seamlessly selfless. 

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Leader #2: The mentor

Leader 2: The mentor

Act 1: Hired on referral

Leader 1 actually referred me to leader 2. Initially, I was a bit intimated by this new leader, though he would probably laugh about this if ever reading this one. The leader was direct, yet straight to the point. 

Act 2: Be who you are and don’t be afraid to fail

This leader challenged me to take the next step in my career and go lead a small team and take more responsibility. It was scary for me at that time, and this leader made sure I felt comfortable, listening and coaching me, yet allowing it to do it my way. I remember recruiting my first hire to expand the team and me wondering if I was making the right choice, and my leader fully supporting my choice. Sounds reckless? Well, not really, I was challenged and asked why the person would be the ideal person. 

I also remember a colossal [email protected]#$%-up made by me (or well, that’s how it felt to me) and my leader calling me to ask what happened, why I did what I did. Bottom line, all it took was for me to own the mistake and explain my thoughts on how to solve and then solve it (with support from my leader). While solving it, my leader took the heat in the meantime. I wasn’t blamed, and in the end things were solved.

Act 3: The mentor

This leader was an amazing mentor. The leader managed to amplify my personal strengths and supported me in overcoming worries and doubts, of being a leader myself. This leader was easy to open up to and share thoughts and reasoning with, without getting judged. A leader who supported personal and professional growth, and didn’t blame for a mistake made.

Leader #3: The understander

Leader 3: The understander

Act 1: It was a given

The leader was involved in my hiring process, though as my team was located in a different geography, wasn’t the main decision maker for my hire (at least that’s how I always understood it), but I was directly reporting to this leader.

Act 2: The confidant

I guess initially I was not too sure what to think yet about this leader, but overtime I started appreciating this leader more and more. The leader wasn’t there on the forefront, yet always took time to listen and coach. Moreover, without saying things explicitly, the leader encouraged proactivity and getting things done mentality. Though I didn’t realize it back then, the leader always had me join initiatives, provided exposure and had the confidence in me to manage one of the most important initiatives at that time. 

In addition, this leader had a great skill to figuratively put a mirror in front of me, for me to take a step back, rethink and move forward. 

I probably haven’t given this leader enough credits if I think about it, and yes that is all on me. 

Act 3: The change giver

This leader was a change giver. When earned trust, the leader would pay it back by providing more opportunities. The leader always looked how to best provide a new, exciting challenge. In addition, the leader understood very well how someone operates and didn’t shy away providing candid feedback, without judgement.

The leadership skills summary

So there you have it, three leaders who had a great influence on my professional career, what I learned from them and how it shaped my own leadership style.

Essential Leadership skills: (1) Communicate and Connect Effectively (2) Inspire Confidence (3) Promote Healthy Failures (4) Make difficult conversations easy (5) Empower (6) Demonstrate High EQ

To all my bosses, we were just not a professional match. To all my managers, thank you for the great work relationship delivering awesome results. To all my leaders and especially the 3 mentioned in this article, you had a great impact on me, and allowed me to excel whilst better understanding myself, and what drives me in my professional career. I thank you for that!

Signing-off

Klaas Hermans for Sharpwitted.Ninja

O yeah, almost forget, getting back to those books I was telling about at the beginning. 

Below my short list of favorite leadership books

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