The mindset of great leaders

If you search Amazon Books for the keyword ”leadership” you get 110,096 results. That is a breathtaking amount of books. I can’t claim to have read all of these but I have read a LOT of leadership books during 25 years. Most of them are written by academics and relatively few by practitioners. Some are very good but most, quite frankly, are hardly worth the paper they are printed on.

My experience is that the conventional conversation and knowledge about leadership is rather ”technical”. It tends to be about tactics, tools, techniques that leaders should employ to be successful. You can also find an endless number of lists of the personality traits leaders should have.

The work I have done over the years has led me to focus much more on the leader’s inner motivations and mindsets. I have also become more and more convinced that these aspects are the decisive markers of great leaders rather than the technical stuff. The technical stuff can be learned by almost anyone but becomes more or less useless, or even potentially dangerous in the hands of a person that has not acquired a reasonable leadership mindset.

So, in this post I’d like to share a couple of key dimensions of a leader’s mindset that I have identified. It is by no means a complete set and I’d love to get your comments on these and other important dimensions.

1. Calibrate your view on people. It sounds really banal, but it is essential for any leader to make a deep assessment of one’s view on people. Leadership is people affairs, like it or not. So, it would make a great deal of sense to deeply understand if you like people or not. Even when they do ugly, messy stuff. Which they tend to do. It would also make a lot of sense to calibrate your view on human potential. Are people lazy and need lots of control to perform or are they full of potential and self directing if they are given the right circumstances. Your view on people will show in your leadership. You can hide it for a while, but not forever.

2. Make a conscious choice to be a leader. Most leaders I encounter believe they are destined to be leaders, but relatively few have made an active and conscious choice. If you see yourself as a reluctant boss or boss by accident, chances are you are on a track to become a less than good leader. If you have made a conscious choice you will most probably actively want to be as good a leader you ever can be. That makes a world of difference in the way your leadership is perceived.

3. Get to know your inner demons. Once you have made your conscious choice, you will have to accept that you have strong sides in your leadership and weaker sides. Get to know both. Do more of what you are good at and less of what you are weaker at. But most of all make sure you have made the effort to know your inner dark sides. The things that tick you off. The stuff that haunts you from the past. Get to know them and know how to defuse them. Because if you don’t they will most certainly bring you down in the future.

4. You need people you can trust deeply. Being a leader is a very rewarding life path, but at times can also be a very lonely enterprise. Don’t ever think that you can pull everything off on your own. Don’t be the lone hero. They look good in the films but aren’t what we are looking for in reality. You need a few people that you can trust blindly to tell you things straight to your face. People that you allow to take you down from your piedestal. It is an important development and survival strategy. Oh, and make sure you don’t have your spouse as professional confident. Trust me, it is a very bad idea.

5. Enjoy the ride, or get out. Sadly, I encounter too many leaders that complain about their role and the challenges they face. As I mentioned above leadership needs to be an active and conscious choice. It need to be fun and in net terms give you energy. Of course there are dimensions of leadership work that are tiring and even boring. But it really is no use complaining. Either the fun and energy giving parts of the work offset the negative or you need to consider some changes in your attitude and/or work set up. Perhaps a leadership role is not for you then you need to get out – for your own and your colleagues’ sake.

6. Focus more on relationships and collaboration. The wisest leaders I have met have one thing in common. The are very clear on the outcomes they expect from their organization but do not make the mistake of managing all the details. They delegate as much as they dare (and then some more…) and then focus their attention on creating the right circumstances for quality work to get done. Interestingly the wisest among the wise have focused on the people stuff. Building strong relationships and fostering great collaboration skills and climate.

I would argue the case that great leaders have navigated these dimensions consciously and generated a solid foundation that their leadership rests on. Leadership is at times very challenging work and having sorted out these types of dimensions makes you more capable and successful than leaders who haven’t.

— Jan


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