Team Management

6 Counterintuitive Ways to Be a Better Leader

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
colleagues around a table

Play the word association game with “leader” and you probably land on a specific stereotype: Decisive. Engaging. Outgoing. Commanding (in a good way).

If that doesn’t sound like you, that’s okay. While leadership seems instinctive for some people, most leaders are made, not born. They learn to make good decisions, engage on an individual level with a wide variety of people, and lead with authority that is earned—not just conferred. And they learn that being an effective leader doesn’t require a cookie-cutter approach. In fact, there are a number of counterintuitive ways to be a better leader. Below are my top six.

1. Want to inspire? Check your watch first

Great leaders are persuasive. (Maybe that’s why Mark Cuban feels every entrepreneur needs solid sales skills.)

Being persuasive doesn’t just involve marshaling facts, figures, and logic to describe the benefits of an idea and gain agreement. How you present your facts, figures, and logic also matters. 

Charisma matters.

Which means, whenever you need to lead an important meeting, or to inspire and motivate your team, you should plan that meeting based on your circadian rhythm. Research shows we’re much less charismatic when we’re at a low point in our circadian rhythms (think “morning person” or “night owl”) and much more charismatic when were at a high point. If you’re a morning person, hold that meeting at nine or ten a.m. If you’re a night owl, wait until three or four p.m.

But, also keep in mind the rhythms of the people you work with. If your team is mostly made up of morning people, they’ll naturally respond better earlier in the morning. If your team is a blend of morning people and night owls, compromise and meet around noon.

Since great leaders give their employees their best, it only makes sense to make sure you’re at your best.

2. Want to Be More Reasonable and Grounded? Exercise

OK—maybe you don’t need a scientific study to tell you this, but still: research shows stress causes leaders to become more hesitant. More emotional. Less motivated. More focused on themselves, rather than the people they lead.

Clearly that’s bad news, since stress is inherent to leadership.

But there is a simple antidote. At least one study shows that aerobic exercise instantly lowers levels of anxiety and stress. And the effect can last for hours after exercise: the researchers found that subjects were better able to stay calm and focused when they had to deal with an “emotional event” like conflict, confrontation, or delivering constructive criticism.

But wait, there’s more! Another study found that twenty minutes of moderate exercise has a “mood-boosting” effect that can last for as many as twelve hours.

All of which means adding twenty minutes of exercise to your morning routine won’t just make you healthier; it can also make you a better leader.

3. Want to Make Better Decisions? Make Fewer Decisions

As Jeff Bezos says, “If I make three good decisions a day, that’s enough, and they should just be as high quality as I can make them.”

While that sounds great in principle, most leaders make lots of decisions. (My guess is you feel like you make hundreds of decisions a day.)

So, how can you make fewer overall decisions, so you can apply that mindshare to making “high quality” decisions?

Decide who will decide.

Instead of signing off on every purchase order, decide who will make those decisions (up to a certain dollar amount, if you want to hedge your employee authority bet.) Instead of approving expedited shipping, decide who will make those decisions. Instead of inserting yourself into every production decision, decide who will be in charge of workflow. 

Then let them make those decisions—and, when necessary, provide additional training or guidance.

If you struggle to determine who is best placed to make a certain set of decisions, the answer is usually easy: push the responsibility as far down the hierarchical ladder as possible. The people most involved, or affected, almost always know better than you.

4. Want to Lead Better Meetings? Start Every Meeting Right on Time

Attend ten meetings, and chances are, nine didn’t start on time. Casual conversations extend into “meeting time.” People drift in late. You drift in late.

Happens all the time.

And significantly impacts meeting effectiveness. One study found meetings that started ten minutes late were over 30 percent less effective than meetings that started on time. Fewer total ideas were generated, and even fewer of those ideas were practical, much less feasible.  

All because the meeting didn’t start on time.

The next time you hold a meeting, do a little math. Add up the hourly rates of everyone present. That—not to mention the opportunity cost of what people in the room could be doing—is the cost of the meeting. Is the meeting worth the hundreds or thousands of dollars it costs?

If so, great.

But that also means it’s worth starting on time; otherwise, you won’t get the bang for the buck you deserve.

5. Want to Generate Better Ideas and Feedback? Never Speak First

Your business faces a problem, issue, or challenge. Something needs to change. You think you have the answer. You describe the situation, lay out your solution, and ask for feedback.

Yeah, no.

Great leaders don’t speak first. They speak last. As Simon Sinek says, “The skill to hold your opinions to yourself until everyone has spoken does two things. One, it gives everybody else the feeling that they have been heard. It gives everyone else the ability to feel that they have contributed. And two, you get the benefit of hearing what everybody else thinks before you render your opinion. The skill is really to keep your opinions to yourself.”

The better approach? Describe the problem, issue, or challenge. But, don’t suggest a possible solution. Just say, “What do you think we should do?”

Then, sit back and listen.

You already know what you think. The goal is to find out what other people think.

6. Want to Lead Satisfied Employees? Show You Can Do Their Jobs

Conventional wisdom says great leaders can lead anywhere. That, for example, Steve Jobs would have been just as effective running a steel mill as he was running Apple. Great leaders don’t need to be able to do the work; they need to organize, motivate, and inspire the people who do the work.

Another “yeah … no …” at least where employee satisfaction is concerned. This study found that having a boss who could “do your job” has the greatest impact on employee satisfaction.

That’s great news for the average small business owner. You’re the subject matter expert. You’re likely to be the most skilled. Chances are, you trained the people who work for you.

Which means they respect you not just as a leader, but as a doer.

So don’t be afraid to jump in occasionally and get your metaphorical hands dirty. Not only will that give you a chance to reconnect with working in, not just on, your business, the competence you display will also make an impact on employee job satisfaction.

Can’t beat that.

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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