Being a real leader

Sep 25, 2022

If you want to be an effective leader, you must help others, build trust, and set the best example every day.

I have my friend, Matt Lewis, vice president and general manager of Lewis Automotive, come speak to my small enterprise classes at the Walton College each spring. Matt came into his family business about 15 or so years ago and has been very successful.

He likes to tell the story about how, early in his career, he held a meeting with his salespeople, and then how afterward, he saw “the meeting after the meeting” out back – one that would be led by someone who was usually the person who had worked there the longest. Matt made it his goal to win that person’s support by helping them. Whatever it was they needed to facilitate a quicker sale, he did it. Wash the car, get the paperwork and manuals together, find the keys, anything necessary so the salesperson could move onto their next customer. He wanted that salesperson to know he was there to help. And then he hoped they would spread the word to the other people there that he wasn’t just an entitled family member. It was a good strategy, and it worked.

I tell this story because it demonstrates what an intelligent leader does. They don’t just issue orders and expect others to follow them. They instead earn the respect of everyone else. There are thousands of books out there on leadership – and probably millions of articles on the same topic. I won’t bother getting into all the names of one approach or another – some of which have turned into tired cliches (“level 5 leadership,” “servant leader,” etc.). But you can boil down the essence of leadership to three things.

First, to win the support of others you have to help them achieve their goals (even if those are simple goals such as what they need to accomplish in a single day). Second, you have to build trust. And third, you must set a personal example for what you want other people to do. Skip any of these three and you will have problems.

I have already given an example of helping others achieve their goals. That is a simple but fundamental idea. People are having a problem – fix it for them. People are overwhelmed – take on some of their work. People need tools, or software, or something else – get it for them. People want to learn new things – make that possible.

So that leaves building trust and setting a positive example. Trust comes from a couple things. One is being honest. Tell the truth. Tell it like it is and don’t sugar coat anything. But even more important than that may be not keeping secrets. The term frequently used today is “transparency.” It’s one reason I’m such a fan of open-book management. When the rank and file employees see all of the numbers, honestly presented, on the state of the business, they don’t get the feeling that management is hiding anything from them. That is essential to building trust. But so is being trustworthy. This means not divulging the secrets of others. If you tell those to anyone else you aren’t demonstrating trustworthiness.

The third aspect of leadership is setting an example for the behaviors you expect from others. Some may say that setting an example is the single most critical aspect of leadership, although helping and building trust are essential as well. For example, last week in this column, I wrote about timesheets. In the AEC business, we live or die based on those timesheets. And it is often a battle getting everyone to do theirs on time. If the leaders themselves don’t do their timesheets in a timely manner, there is no way the people who work with them are going to do theirs on time. The same thing applies for business development calls. Or hours worked in the office. Or how to treat other people. Setting the right example means you can’t retire on the job. And you have to be cognizant of the fact that the eye of scrutiny is upon you. Setting an example also requires competence. Being good at doing something – like knowing your discipline, managing projects, selling new work – is also critical. No one likes to be led by someone else in doing something that their leader can’t do themselves.

So how are you faring in terms of helping others, building trust, and setting the best example? If you want to be an effective leader, practice all three of these things every day. And if you do so, I predict great results! 

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.