How not to suck as a leader

Dec 17, 2018

Ditch the ego, the fancy title, and the unnecessary rules. Instead, be the spark that inspires your team members to follow their passions.

If you are a manager, you have people following your orders. If you are a leader, you have people following you.

According to a Harvard psychologist, when people first meet you, it takes them seconds to judge you by two criteria:

  1. Can I trust this person? Psychologists refer to this as “warmth.”
  2. Can I respect this person? Psychologists refer to this as “competence.”

People will not respect you until they trust you. Your trustworthiness or “warmth” is the most important factor in how your employees will evaluate you.

What you need:

  • Empathy. Build trust by showing you care with sincere empathy, praise, and encouragement. Employees can tell if you aren’t being sincere. Have unquestioned integrity.
  • Empowerment. Don’t focus on results, focus on people. Teach, coach, and mentor your employees. They will build confidence to stretch and challenge themselves, ultimately reaching their highest potential. The more we invest in our employees, the more they will give back to us.
  • Enthusiasm/engagement. Create followers by being a spark of inspiration. By showing confidence and enthusiasm for your vision, your employees will be motivated to work hard alongside you. Seventy percent of an employee’s motivation is influenced by their leader.

What you don’t need: Seniority, a title, ego, power, direct reports, and unnecessary rules. Anyone can lead.

The best leaders surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are. You are the leader because of your skills. Don’t compete with your employees – have confidence in your abilities.

Five ways to be an exceptional leader at any firm:

  1. Share information. Share “the vision” with your team. Give them a reason to care. Make them aware of how their daily efforts are contributing to the big picture, whether that is the end results of a project or the overall goals of the company. People will take on more responsibility when they care about the outcome. Don’t hoard knowledge. Our job as leaders is to create more leaders. Share your experiences. Let your team learn from your mistakes. Openly addressing your mistakes shows modesty and sets a tone of humility that will earn you respect.
  2. Build a strong team. Great leaders play chess. Each piece has a unique role, ability, and limitation. Be a chess master – recognize the unique strengths and weaknesses of each team member and place them in situations where they will thrive. We, as leaders, also have weaknesses – identify them and surround yourself with others who help make up for them. Recognize and praise good performance and don’t tolerate poor performance and excuses. Remove excuses to accelerate improvement or accelerate an exit.
  3. Be human. Balance being professional with being human. Relate to your team as a person first and as a boss second. Empathize.
    • “You seem to be struggling lately. What’s going on?”
    • “I’m worried about you. How can I help you?”
    By showing that you care about the personal wellbeing of each employee, you will create a comfortable and trustworthy culture among your team which will encourage confidence and creativity!
  4. Share the praise, take the blame. Are you willing to always share the praise with your team, regardless of if you were the sole reason for the success or not? Are you ready to take all the blame, even if you had nothing to do with the problem? Great leaders answer “yes” to both questions. Look for ways to praise your team – recognize accomplishments, celebrate milestones. Great leaders sacrifice themselves – they pull you from the bus’s path rather than throw you under it. Recognize a team failure as a failure in leadership and work hard to correct it. Be the calm during a storm. People who have worked for a great leader often look back and marvel at their composure under pressure.
  5. Promote passion projects. Encourage members of your team to follow their passions. It improves their productivity and happiness. Studies have shown that those who feel enabled to pursue their passions at work experience something called “flow,” a euphoric state of mind that can make them five times more productive in the workplace. We’re in this profession because we love what we do. Encourage your team to follow their passions and they will grow to love what they do. If work is fun, performance is better, and people stick around for longer hours and a longer career. Have one big laugh every day.

Jeff Roman is engineering practice leader at Little and can be reached 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.