Leadership: You learn more from the days you miss the mark


The world of business and marketing are in a state of flux. The market, platforms, and rules of engagement and acceptable practice seem to change before you have mastered the last set. There seems to be an insurmountable amount of variables that are outside of our control in a professional world where control seems absolutely necessary.

But in the midst of all this uncertainty, technological advancements, and the rising expectations from customers, clients, employees, and vendors, there is one thing that never changes or goes out of style–good leadership. 

Agency life can be frantic. It’s fewer nerf hoops and sleeping pods and more jumping through hoops and sleeping on couches.

While most days buzz by in a flurry of emails, edits, and Hubspot campaign builds, there are some that seem to stop you dead in your tracks and make you question everything you believe about yourself and your ability to finish building the very thing you are so passionate about.

Leadership has always been an interest of mine from the time I was in high school, and now I find myself managing a digital marketing department and an internship program that can often feel like very deep water that demands the very best out of me day-in-and-day-out with no room for error. And even on my best days, I know that I can lead better. On the bad days, I sometimes wish there was a reset button because my team deserves better. Yesterday, well, it left me wanting a stiff cocktail. I went to bed thinking about what makes a good leader, and while the day left me with far too few of these boxes checked, I am grateful for a team who showed up early today, all with stories of their own self-reflection. It made me proud to be a part our team at Em.

Here are the boxes I think every good leader should be able to check off.

A good leader serves.

Yeah, yeah, I know, how original. But I’m going somewhere with this. Stick with me.

The Oxford American dictionary lists the following words and phrases as synonyms for the word serve: be of use to, give help to, benefit, do something for, and make a contribution to.

The list is longer, but you get the point.

You work hard to get into positions of authority, and then you have to quickly learn that being in authority means serving selflessly those looking to you for leadership. At the very point you are called to lead, your job moves from doing the things that vaulted you into leadership to focusing your efforts on making everyone around you better even if it costs you something in the process.

I put that first because it is a lens through which I want you to read the rest of my list.

A good leader knows the makeup of his team.

As a leader, you need to be able to read the room and respond appropriately. In times of tension and stress, those you are leading need stability, reassurance of their abilities, and clear direction.

Each member of your team has a bank of strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t know what those are, here are a couple of evaluation tools I run my team through: The Fascination Advantage by Sally Hogshead and the 16 Personalities assessment.

When you are in the thick of it, it is important to know how each member of the team can best contribute, how they will most likely respond, as well as what each might need in way of assurance, direction, or encouragement.

Each member will be different, and if you want to get the most out of your team, to build trust and loyalty, as well as maximize your productivity, you will know what each member needs before they actually need it.

A good leader listens.

Your team needs a leader that will listen before they speak, and when they do speak, they need a leader who does it thoughtfully and strategically.

Epictetus, the Greek stoic philosopher said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” That edict is much easier for some of us to master than others. (It is not easy for me.) It can be very tempting to speak more in times that demand action, and at times, that is an appropriate response since the gravity of gains and losses ultimately falls on leadership. But before you speak, take a moment to listen.

It’s often a good practice to take a step back and get a feeling for what your team is thinking, particularly those who might be leading their own teams. They will be much closer to the situation and can often provide you with details you would miss otherwise and ultimately help you get buy-in when final decisions are made. Your team will trust you more if they feel like their concerns and suggestions are heard and seriously considered when charting a course.

A good leader buffers from criticism and shines the spotlight.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “A good leader takes all the blame and none of the credit.” When you are coming up through the ranks, there is nothing more annoying than a leader that steals your idea or takes the credit for a project completed under budget and ahead of schedule. It can be much more difficult once you’re the one who needs to take the controls of the spotlight and wear the shoulder pads.

Leading and managing is difficult, and as a leader you are often faced with filling in the gaps. In any given week, I’m a writer, salesperson, trainer, mentor, researcher, administrator, counselor, editor, ice cream man … and the list goes on and on and on. Why? Because my job is to be whatever my team needs me to be at that moment. And when things go badly? Well, publicly, it was all my fault–as it should be since I’m responsible for the team. And when we get a win? Well, that is the time to turn the spotlight brightly on each member and highlight the contributions and skills that each brought to the table.

What do you get in both cases? The respect and loyalty of your team which is more valuable than any accolade you could hope for.

A good leader inspires more than commands.

We know what a good leader looks like. We know what they act like. Ask someone to name a great leader and they’ll rattle off names like William Wallace, Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington, or Albus Dumbledore. And what do each of these leaders have in common? They inspired their followers rather than commanded them.

Make no mistake, inspiration is the hard path less traveled. It is much easier to see a destination and give the directives that you feel need done to get there. And guess what? You might be right, and you are well within the rights of your authority to command those under your leadership, but it’s rarely the best way in the short term and almost never the best option long term. You will always spend leadership points forcing someone to do something, even when it turns out to be the right thing to do.

As humans, we are equal parts tribal and individualistic. We’re very complicated. We want to belong and contribute to something bigger, but we don’t want to give up control of our own individualism. Those two parts of us are always at odds anytime we have to work together. The answer is to find leaders, or better yet, become a leader that inspires the people around you to be the best at what they do and then put them into positions to succeed.

Inspire your team, and they’ll run through walls for you. Command your team, and they’ll actually start building the walls.

A good leader is human.

Your team doesn’t need you to be perfect. Your team needs to know that you care for them and appreciate them. They need you lead with vision, principles, and conviction. And they need to know, when the chips are down, you will have their back.

If you do those things, more likely than not, they will have your back when you fall and falter. Steering the ship doesn’t mean it will never go off course or that you won’t have a bad day at the wheel. We’d like to believe it does, but it doesn’t.

Truly great leaders cultivate a culture that can survive without them but a loyalty that would never allow it to happen.


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