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If you ask people around you who their favorite/most inspirational leaders are, most likely you will hear names like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Richard Branson. We have idolized a handful of popular leaders for traits like vision or charisma, without entirely understanding their personalities or studying their failures. Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer addresses this in his book Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, where he talk about how the $70-billion-dollar leadership industry has failed us. He says “There’s all this mythologizing that besets leadership, as people try to generalize and learn from exceptional cases.”

The book really resonated with me as I have encountered this innumerable number of times in my career. This essay is written to give a holistic view of leadership, based on my decade long experience of leading creative teams. Since I am also an avid cook, I have codified my insights in the form of a recipe.

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One part people management

If you want to lead people, you need to know how to work with them. This does not mean that you have to be an extrovert or gregarious person, but you need to be empathetic and genuinely care about the well-being of the people you lead. You will also have to read situations quickly, listen carefully, and make good decisions. Finally, you need to manage up. Make your management feel informed and build their trust in your capacity for sound judgment.

One part functional expertise

As you transition from an individual contributor to manager, you need to learn to let go and delegate. However, remember that you can delegate execution, but you cannot delegate understanding.

As responsibility increases, it will become difficult to maintain functional expertise. By continually sharpening your functional knowledge, you can ensure that you make good decisions on behalf of the team.

One part administration and organization

When you are a leader, you sign up to do the administrative work on behalf of the team – usually more than you can imagine. Equipment has to be purchased, budgets have to be reconciled, expenses have to be approved, events have to be organized, performance has to be reviewed, salaries need to be negotiated and so on.

The key to tackling this aspect of leadership is to strive for balance. Too much administrative overhead will feel stifling and burdensome, while too little structure will feel chaotic and out of control. Apply sound organizational design principles to set up a structure that fits your team’s needs.

If you are part of a larger organization, it is likely that the organization will impose some processes on you and your team. As a leader, it is healthy to approach these processes with a critical eye to evaluate which ones further the mission of the team and which ones detract from it. It is inevitable that you will find a few processes that you can do without. You cannot fight every battle; so pick the ones that are worth the effort. This will showcase your leadership skills to an audience larger than your immediate team, and is ultimately a service you do to your overall company.

Stir with authenticity

When you cook, do you ever do a taste check after you have combined the ingredients?  Leaders need to do similar self-checks to assess their effectiveness.

If you notice that you are lacking in one area, you can adjust and find strategies to augment this aspect of leadership. For example, if you find you lack functional expertise, seek experts who can mentor you, or point you to resources to help you fill this knowledge gap. If you are disorganized, or find that administrative tasks bore you, find tools to help you stay organized, and remind yourself of the larger purpose. If you lack people skills, seek mentoring or coaching to become a better listener and thoughtful communicator.

The best leaders are self-aware and understand their strengths and weaknesses. Remember that it is an ongoing journey. Conduct a self-inventory by doing honest self-checks and seeking feedback. Most importantly, adopt an open and lifelong learner’s mindset.

Sprinkle with personal style

Leaders come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders. As long as you stay professional, and drive team results, you are better off leading in your own unique style than trying to fit a mold you feel uncomfortable in. Doing so may make you feel like an imposter deep down, and will affect your credibility.

It takes time to find your true voice as a leader, so be patient with yourself. Being true to yourself will help you connect with your team and earn their trust.

Serve with love

Finally, great leaders lead with love. Many of the tasks a leader does will be invisible to the team. However, they must be done if they serve the greater good.

There will be times when a leader is called upon to serve and even sacrifice for the team. And only upon this service and sacrifice can we build our authority and influence, and earn the right to be called a true leader.

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  1. Dharma Subramanian

    Extremely well written article. I’ve added  “Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time”   to my reading list. The two points that I nodded vehemently as I was reading were.

    a. “You can delegate execution but you cannot delegate understanding”. I cannot agree with this statement more. Those managers that expect a “complete solution” with neither an understanding of the problem nor an understanding of how solution solves the problem are doomed to fail. Getting a handle over the mountain of new knowledge that is required with every passing year is a challenge though.

    b. Sprinkle with personal style. No two individuals are the same and neither are leadership styles or the personalities behind those styles.  Being authentic always shines through and people are willing to overlook minor personality quirks in the process.

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