5 Leadership Behaviors That Will Make You a Great Leader

What is your leadership style?

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Great leadership is not about you. It is about your people. Leadership must be one of the topics most written about and there are countless courses, training and even full-scale university degrees on management and leadership.

It is that hard. Or is it?

Leadership is important. It is one of the top retention factors as Steve Miranda, from Cornell University, says

“Employees don’t quit jobs, they quit managers.”

It takes practice and experience and most often a good deal of training and education to become a great leader. The leadership training market is huge. Trainingindustry.com estimates leadership training to be $3.4 billion in 2018 and growing.

The need is undoubtedly great with unsettling numbers of bad leaders.

“Over 75% of the workplace says that their bad boss is the worst part of their workplace”

Leadership skills and style is a top question to any job interview when applying for a position as a manager. It is also a hard question to answer since a lot of leadership theory can be hard to compress into simple answers and actionable behaviors.

Great leadership does not have to be hard. But it has to be done well and it has to be practiced. The five maxims of a great leader are behaviors collected from experience, talks with inspirational leaders and mentorship from great leaders over the past 12 years.

These are behaviors you can start practicing today!

1. Lead by Example – Leadership Maxim 1

“Serious leaders understand that, both by design and default, they’re always leading by example.” HBR, Michael Schrage

You cannot avoid leading by example. You will always be an example of leadership and that is why you need to be conscious of the example you are setting. Conscious of the behaviors you are showing your team to emulate.

One of the classic catchphrases that pop-up on the internet regularly is “Be the leader you want yourself”. That is not bad advice. What is most important is to be conscious and clear on what you want yourself and to reflect on how you are living these qualities yourself.

It is equally important to understand and respect that not everyone needs the same leadership style and the same type of support. You need to understand your employees, their needs, and where they are in their professional development to lead them as they need. To be the leader, they need and not necessarily the leader they want. Leadership style must be adapted to individual employees to match their needs, development stage and to help them be their best selves.

“Respect that not everyone needs the same kind of leader and adapt to their needs”.

There are still universals like morals, integrity, honesty and work ethics. That goes almost without saying. Furthermore, you need to be passionate and strong in your beliefs and vision. You need to be clear about the behavior you want to see from your employees and reflect on how you can be an example of that.

If you want your people to take responsibility for their projects, then show that by not micromanaging them doing it. Lead the way. Also in your absence, by trusting that your employees can bear the responsibility. Set expectations and responsibilities but without pressure.

Maxim #1: I am conscious of the example I am setting as a leader, both when present and in my absence.

The behavior to implement:

  • At least twice a year set aside 60 minutes for reflection on your leadership practices
  • Reflect on your leadership behavior. Does your behavior support your goals?
  • Notice what other leaders do to be examples worth following?
  • Focus on the behaviors you want to see in others and implement those yourself.

Download the free “Annual Leadership Reflection” form

2. Direct and honest feedback – Leadership Maxim 2

“Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.” Dale Carnegie

Direct and honest feedback is one of the cornerstones in the development of your employees and peers. Feedback should always be given with respect and close to the moment where it is most relevant. But at the same time, it is important to be mindful of

  1. The form of the feedback
  2. The receivers mindset

The classic feedback model, the sandwich/burger model that you have probably heard of, is not a good model. First of all, everyone knows it and the format, so as soon as you begin, they know what is coming. The model is outdated and should not be used.

Instead, focus on the positive. The potential. As Dale Carnegie writes in “How to win friends and influence people” criticism is futile because it wounds the person’s pride and gets them on the defensive. Focus on the behavior you want to see.

The form of your feedback should be direct, but respectful. Be clear about why you are giving that feedback and what behavior you want to see changed. Focus as much as possible on the positive feedback, on encouraging behavior you want to see more of.

Notice the mindset of your receiver. Are they ready to receive feedback to correct or are they already correcting their behavior? Very often I have experienced employees who know they have done something in a less optimal way and still their manager feels the need to tell them. If they know, then focus your feedback on something else that is encouraging.

Listen, trust and communicate. Loyalty means trusting your people and trust is built through understanding and communication. Understanding means listening, not listening to respond but truly listening with full attention to the other person. You can read more about the power of great communication in this article.

Remember that your employee wants to be part of something of significance. They want to be part of creating something that matters. That is up to the leader to point to and support the employee in seeing.

Maxim #2: I give honest and respectful feedback in the moment with focus on encouragement on behavior I want more of.

The behavior to implement:

  • Practice noticing positive behavior in your employees and colleagues. Then every day, for 3 weeks, give positive and encouraging feedback to someone.
  • Try for 1 week to eliminate all criticism and corrective feedback.
  • Send words of encouragement to everyone that has done a presentation, facilitated a workshop or in other ways done something worth a few positive words. Make that a standard for your leadership style.

3. Use the energy of friction – Leadership Maxim 3

“There is energy in friction. Don’t be afraid of it. Build enough trust in the relationship to allow friction to become an agent of growth.” Morten Müller Larsen

Every so often you come across people who are afraid of conflict, afraid of disagreement, afraid of the friction that can be when differences in opinion meet. Friction can be one of the strongest creative forces when handled properly and with respect. In a good discussion, new points and clarity can arise from the different viewpoints meeting, battling, and finding common ground.

“Friction can start a fire, stop a car, generate electricity and challenge you to think differently”

Friction is more than an agent of creativity. It is an agent of change. Change happens when the benefit of change supersedes pain of the friction in the system. That goes for people as well as organizations. Change can be difficult and painful and sometimes you need the friction of current affairs to drive that change. You can harness that power to create change with yourself or your employees.

Challenge people to try new assignments, to do things differently. Allow them to experience the friction of the unknown and support them in growing through friction and beyond.

Friction is a strong component in behavior change as well and one of the key components in Behavioral Economics. Often described as friction cost. When adding friction you can nudge people to go another direction or by removing friction new actions suddenly seem easier. One of the most used examples is Amazon’s 1-click buy button. They removed almost all friction from the purchase situation and thus increased purchases.

These behavior principles can be used in management as well. Create friction where you want the behavior to stop and remove friction where you want the behavior to go.

Maxim #3: I embrace friction as an agent of creativity, growth and change.

The behavior to implement:

  • Challenge and allow others to challenge you. Don’t be rigid but enter discussions to learn new perspectives.
  • Use friction actively to change behavior and to inspire growth.

4. Remove obstacles and get out of the way – Leadership Maxim 4

“Remove obstacles and get the h… out of the way” Amulya Malladi

My former manager and mentor Amulya Malladi once told me to hire good people, then focus on removing any obstacle and get out of the way. In that, she did not mean to solve all problems or challenges for her employees, on the contrary.

It is important for everyone to deal with their challenges themselves. But some obstacles need a manager’s help and that is one of the great leaders’ most important jobs. One of these obstacles may be in the area of decisions. One of the last decade’s buzzwords — empowerment — is great. You need to empower people, when possible, to make decisions and to be able to act themselves to not get stuck in endless approval loops. But sometimes you need to make the decisions. To support your employees by taking that responsibility away. It is a balance, but decisions can be an obstacle you can remove.

“Together, these two facets (leader and people), work as a team to clear a path toward a common goal.” — Confucius

Timothy Gallway developed a simple formula of performance that underlines the point of the leader’s role in removing obstacles. “Performance = Potential — Interference”

Without interference, performance would equal potential. In his understanding interference can manifest in many ways, including lack of motivation, lack of knowledge and skills, and other external factors like conflicts, management, etc.

As a leader, you can either be part of the interference or the one who removes interference to ensure the potential of your people develops. Be the leader that removes interference.

Maxim #4: I remove obstacles and get out of the way so my employees can shine.

The behavior to implement:

  • In 1:1 meetings notice the obstacles that need your help and focus on solving those for your employees.
  • When employees have challenges, ask specifically how you can help instead of just suggesting solutions or taking over the problem.

5. Let your People Shine – Leadership Maxim 5

“A great leader understands that it is the people they lead that ultimately determines the success or failure of them as leaders.”

Your people’s success is your most important goal as a leader. The more your people will shine, the better you will look as their leader. It is the leader’s role to set direction and clear the path, as described above. You should not only get out of the way but make sure your people get into the spotlight and are supported to succeed.

That means to support their personal and professional development and make sure they grow. It is not enough to ask your employees what their ambitions are, where they want to be in the next 6–12 months or what job they would like to have next. You need to take active action and think about how you can help them get that next job.

If you have hired the right people, and surely you have, then you need to make sure they shine and get credit for their work. As Steve Jobs has been quoted saying:

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Steve Jobs

That is a lesson worth remembering. You don’t need to know everything best. That does not have to be your role as a leader. What you need to know best is how to deploy your people to challenge them to perform at their best. And don’t forget to make sure they are enjoying themselves along the way.

At the most basic level, everyone wants to feel a sense of accomplishment and that they are appreciated for what they do. They should get that from multiple sources, not only their manager. That means they should be exposed, be in the limelight, and get the credit for their work.

“Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.” Dale Carnegie

That leads us to the fifth and final maxim of great leadership

Maxim #5: I let my people shine. Great leaders shine through their employees.

The behavior to implement:

  • Expose your employees at every chance you get.
  • Make sure your employees get credit for their work.


Leadership can be hard and needs to be practiced. Having a few maxims or rules of behavior that defines your leadership style and makes you a consistently good leader will take you a long way. And remember to review those maxims on a regular basis.

These leadership maxims have been helping me lead successful teams during my career and will continue to do so going forward.

  • Maxim #1: I am conscious of the example I am setting as a leader, both when present and in my absence.
  • Maxim #2: I give honest and respectful feedback at the moment with a focus on encouragement on the behavior I want more of.
  • Maxim #3: I embrace friction as an agent of creativity, growth, and change.
  • Maxim #4: I remove obstacles and get out of the way so my employees can shine.
  • Maxim #5: I let my people shine. Great leaders shine through their employees.

Download the free “Annual Leadership Reflection” form.

Bonus advice: Learning how to change your mental state instantly can be a great asset as a manager as well as in your personal relationships.

Article was first published on Medium