4 Key Principles You Should Adopt To Become An Effective Leader

Tom Stevenson
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“I’ve told you a hundred times already Tom, that’s not how you shovel bitumen!”

When I landed my first job in New Zealand, this was a common retort I had to deal with each day.

Working in construction is hard. It’s even harder when the guy you’re working for belittles you time and time again.

No matter how well we worked or how much we got done, he always found something to criticise. A tool out of place, talking too much, or our attitude. Nothing was ever good enough and praise was rarer than flying pigs!

As bad as this experience was, it taught me a lot about the art of leadership. Conversely, I learnt more in these weeks than I did working for bosses I liked.

Being a leader is never easy. But there are certain principles you need to follow if you want to excel in the role.

Here are four any aspiring leader should adopt:

Take responsibility

Leaders take responsibility for their actions. They hold their hands up when they get it wrong and don’t shy away from uncomfortable decisions. No one wants to work for someone who throws them under the bus at the first sign of trouble.

All of the best bosses I’ve worked for took responsibility. If something went wrong on their part, they owned it. They didn’t try to shift responsibility or scapegoat someone else, they admitted their mistakes.

Leadership requires humility. You have to look yourself in the mirror and accept the mistakes you make. No one’s perfect. If you think you are, you’re in for a rude awakening.

When leaders take responsibility, it’s a signal you’re not above your team, you’re with them. This will make them respect you and endeavour to work that little bit harder. You’re more willing to bust your guts for someone who’s got your back than someone who hasn’t.

Responsibility has another dimension too. It’s about ensuring fairness in your workplace, making sure you hear everyone’s voices and take on their concerns. You want to have people’s backs and demonstrate you’re willing to fight on their behalf.

Leaders who take responsibility are ones who prosper.

Lead by example

If you want to enforce certain standards, you need to personify them. People take their cue from the top. If your standards are sloppy, this will filter throughout your team.

This was the issue with my first job in New Zealand. My boss didn’t lead by example. Looking back, he barely led at all. He treated us like dirt rather than, you know, a living, breathing human.

I remember driving to meet him at their house one day, before we started work. As we were working in construction, we usually drove to meet him and then headed off to where we were going to work.

We got there about 8 in the morning, and he wasn’t up. Ringing on the doorbell was what woke him up. Cue me and my friend waiting for 30 minutes outside while he got ready. If you don’t take work seriously and you’re the boss, it’s hardly a surprise when those who work for you don’t care either.

This is a classic example of how not to set the standard in the workplace. There was zero motivation on my part to work hard due to the attitude of my boss.

Had he led from the front, cajoled me instead of belittling me, I would have been more inclined to bust my gut. The difference between working for bosses who led by example and those who didn’t was profound.

As a leader, your job is to make those around you better. Not just better at their job, but better people too. The former manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, echoes this sentiment:

“The job of a manager, like that of a teacher, is to inspire people to be better. Give them better technical skills, make them winners, make them better people, and they can go anywhere in life.”

You set the standard when you’re a leader. If the standard isn’t high, don’t be surprised if your team fails to surpass it.

Treat people with respect

Treat people the way you’d want to be treated. It’s a simple concept but one that’s not lacking in many workplaces. If my old boss had treated me fairly, I would have had no issue with him. Yet his constant belittlement meant I didn’t respect him. Respect should never be expected, it has to be earned.

The belief you need to be a ‘tough’ boss to get results has persisted throughout the years. That if you’re too nice, people won’t take you seriously and slack off. While you can’t be too nice, if you stray too far in the opposite direction, you won’t fare much better either.

The benefits of being a tough boss are few and far between. Research shows when leaders are fairer to their team and treat them with respect, productivity increases. It’s not rocket science. No one wants to work for people who treat them like schoolchildren.

I hated going to work when I knew my boss didn't have any respect for me. That first job in New Zealand was horrible because I knew my boss saw me as beneath him. To him, I was an instrument rather than a person. Even if I was blasted with abuse he excepted me to carry on as everything was alright.

It’s no surprise my morale plummeted and I quit after two weeks. Who wants to work for someone like that? The answer is very few people. Treat people with respect and they’ll respect you back. It’s that simple.

Coach, don’t dictate

Give people the flexibility and the space to perform to their best. Nobody likes to be micro-managed. The best leaders coach rather impose one size fits all solutions.

The temptation is to use the same processes for everybody, but this never works. We’re individuals and individuals require an individual response. If you look at the world of sports, this is where you see this method work best.

Coaches know there are different ways of getting the best out of players. Some players will respond best to a dressing down, while an arm around the shoulder works for another. It’s about finding out what makes someone tick and crafting your response accordingly.

Sir Alex Ferguson was famous for his management style. He’d use references to get his players to understand what he expected from them, such as one referencing geese. He’d point out the V formation, that each bird took a turn at the front and repeated throughout the 4,000-mile journey. All of the geese were a single part of a well-oiled machine with a single goal.

Then he’d say:

“Now if they can do that, you can give me 38 games to win the league.”

It’s a simple story but one that puts what he wants from his team into perspective. He’s telling them what he expects without demanding they meet his expectations. This is the essence of coaching rather than dictating.

You bring people along with you and as you do, you create a unifying bond that pulls you along further and faster.

Leadership is an art form. The best leaders recognise their job is to get the best out of those they lead. A leader doesn’t stand astride from his team, he stands with them.

To recap, here are the four principles you should follow if you want to up your leadership game:

  1. Take responsibility for your actions and don’t pass the buck.
  2. Lead by example
  3. Treat people with respect and they will respect you
  4. Coach, don’t dictate

Follow these four principles and you can’t go wrong.

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