Admit it: like me, you’ve probably fallen prey to at least a few “quick win” articles claiming to hold the gospels to great leadership. Whether it’s “Jeff Bezos’ 5 Secrets to Success” or the “Daily Morning Routines of Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates”, clickbait-y opinions on leadership have become mainstream, primarily because they satisfy our lizard brain’s need for control and for simplified “survival” tactics. Even start-ups are jumping onto this phenomenon: Blinkist, a German book-summarizing subscription service, has its Instagram ads begin with “Elon Musk used to read 2 books per day”, as a means of inviting users to sign on “if they want to read like a CEO”.
As a psychology geek and business major, I’ve often found myself curious about leadership – not only from the perspective of how leaders behave and come to be, but also about how we, as humans, get our ideas about successful leadership. What interests me most is our tendency, as a society, to glorify “images” of leadership, which leads us to worship even the irrelevant small details, like daily routines, ways of thinking and mantras of (often) unusually exceptional, wunderkind-type CEOs. Some of us may feel encouraged to try to take these details and apply them to our lives, with the idea that if we were to just follow and emulate these ideals, we too could be successful leaders — until we inevitably fail, or realize just how unrealistic they are.
I believe that there has to be a better, more tailored approach to understanding leadership and to becoming a great leader. And so, instead of waking up at 4:00 am or reading 14 books this week, I’ve compiled 3 pieces of advice from colleagues and professionals in organizational behaviour on how we can approach this differently. Their advice helped me, and I know that it can help you too.
Expand Your Worldview
One of the ways in which we can become stronger leaders is by expanding our definition and worldview of what “successful” leadership looks like. This requires us to shape our understanding from a variety of mediums, including insight into the lives of diverse CEOs, learning from the trials and tribulations of historical figures, or simply learning from those close to us who have done it and have succeeded.
Over time, I’ve built a preliminary understanding of leadership through books written by individuals I considered to be successful, through valued mentors, and through encounters with business leaders. Yet, my perception of great business leadership has been largely rooted in traditional, Western business school ideals. More recently, though, I had the chance to meet Tabatha Bull, President and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), and a leader committed to supporting and strengthening Indigenous businesses in Canada. She shared the “Seven Grandfather Teachings”: a set of interconnected principles that guide her personal and professional decisions, and that underlie the way in which she shows up as a leader each day. Through her, I’ve learned that the success of a business is inextricably linked to the success of the community in which it operates, and of the people who contribute to it each day: this teaching has inspired me to to adopt a strong sense of accountability, responsibility and empathy in the way I’ll lead going forward.
With a variety of sources at our disposal, we can better examine the information we’ve been presented with our whole lives from a critical lens, and extract the insights that make the most sense for us to put into practice.
Reflect on What Made Your Leaders Great (or not so great)
Another approach is to develop our leadership style through examining our experiences as employees. In essence, as we move into leadership roles, it’s critical to shape our own styles by looking back on the following: how our past leaders led by example (were there certain exceptional qualities or behaviours they exhibited that allowed them to do so?), how they cultivated authenticity (did they create an honest and open work environment?), and how they guided and inspired their teams (did they actively seek to create and maintain engagement?). Some of our past managers may not have excelled in these areas — yet, they would have also been the greatest teachers in allowing us to shape the types of leaders that we want to be. By developing awareness on these three points, we can start to build the behaviours that will instill feelings of trust and engagement within our teams.
In my first job, I met Chirfi, a memorable leader. Although he was an excellent strategist and communicator, to me, he was most impactful when he was not on full display. I remember him taking his cafeteria tray (with the same grilled cheese sandwich or “special of the day” that the rest of us had), and sitting at a different lunch table every day. He was (and I’m sure still is) genuinely and deeply curious about the employees who worked to make things happen every day.
We often talk about women claiming their seat at the board table. Well, as a young analyst with no prior work experience, I thought I’d experience my first, very important (and very nerve-wracking) executive board meeting on the sidelines. I’ll never forget the moment Chirfi noticed me sitting away from the board table, stopped the meeting, and asked me to introduce myself to the other stakeholders in the room. He welcomed me, and made sure I understood that each leader at the table was happy to have me there. This moment remains one of the most impactful moments of my career thus far, and to this day, reminds me that successful and inspiring leadership requires authenticity, curiosity, and a dedication to creating psychologically safe spaces for all employees to thrive and be seen.
By developing an awareness of the leaders who have impacted us — or revisiting the traits that weren’t as effective — we can start to understand how to become stronger leaders, ourselves.
And Finally: Don’t Give in to the Lizard Brain Urge to Simplify Hard Problems
Once we’ve collected these learnings, the last step is to distill the insight we have into actionable steps and habits for testing and iteration, and to measure their outcomes on our own definitions of success. Does devoting a certain amount of time to learning or reading per day contribute to your own career objectives? Does adopting a certain behaviour help your team produce better work, or feel safer and more secure in expressing their opinions at work? Testing behaviours against our own goals — and soliciting feedback in the process — is the most helpful tool in truly understanding the type of leader we most naturally are, and can continue to work to become.
In the end, understanding great leadership is not just about the “quick fixes” or absolutes that have worked for certain individuals (I mean, if there were only 3 simple hacks to becoming a great CEO, then I’m sure everyone would be). Instead, it’s about learning from those who have done it — whether they’ve had similar or different paths than we’ve had — and collecting the experiences that allow us to better understand ourselves, and how to best leave our mark on the world around us.