What Does a Leader Do, Anyway?
Leadership is incredibly hard to define. Instead of trying to figure out what a Leader is, I find it easier at times to discern what a Leader does. I’ve whittled it down to three key jobs of a Leader. No matter what organization or industry you’re in, or what job title you have, or what you think your job description is, you need to be doing these three things for your team. A Leader needs to: 1. Provide vision, 2. Define culture, and 3. Help people win.
When someone’s role consists of analyzing trees, it can be difficult to make out the forest. The Leader’s role is to help the team see the bigger picture. She needs to help visualize what success will look like for the team. When we know what the endgame is, we can make decisions on our own that help us get there. By focusing on the vision, we avoid micromanaging and allow our employees to flourish. If you help them focus on what’s most important to the overall success of the organization, then they can likewise focus their efforts in line with your strategic goals.
If you don’t provide vision, then what happens? Your team will wander aimlessly, working in different directions. They may be doing great work, busting their butts to help out – but without proper vision, they could be wasting their efforts. Even if everything seems to work out and they happen to be working in the right direction (or a subordinate leader is saving you), your organization will be missing a crucial element: its why. Lack of vision is a one-way ticket to disillusionment and talent bleed as your best employees run for somewhere that provides fulfillment along with a paycheck.
What do we stand for? How do we handle disagreements? What do we do when things go wrong? All of these are questions that are answered by an organization’s culture. The Leader’s role is to help define that culture for the team. If you lose your temper frequently, how can you expect your team to stay cool under pressure? They are watching what you do and, over time, will come to mimic those behaviors at work. If you want your team to be transparent and open to feedback, you have to be the first one to be vulnerable, admit your faults, and willing to take criticism. During my conversation with Dr. Kelly McGonigal last week, she addressed this directly. She explained how when you are in a formal leadership role, people aren’t judging you – they are taking cues from you. If you’re sincere in your conviction that the behavior is important then I should be doing it myself.
If you don’t define culture, then what happens? A culture will form whether you like it or not – just not one of your choosing. Plenty of leaders ignore this critical task. And many of those leaders also end up with a strong culture. But do you want to leave it up to luck? Take ownership of creating your team’s culture and ensure that it is one in line with your core values.
Help People Win
This one is my favorite part of leading, but somehow the most overlooked. The Leader’s role is to create opportunities for success and put people in positions to win. Arguably, this is the only job of a Leader, and the other key jobs are only important in how they help people win (but then this would be a short article!).
One portion of helping people win is by setting processes that allow them to do their best work. Reducing inefficiency from administrative tasks allows the team to focus on their core functions and provides the mental space needed to think creatively about problems. The best processes vary based on the personalities of the team. You need to figure out how your team works best and set up your office to break down barriers and help them win each day.
Helping people win doesn’t stop with the daily rhythm of the office, nor is it limited to their current job. Your focus should include helping them win in their careers and achieve their life goals. Maybe they need a recommendation for graduate school. Maybe they need a referral to land their next role. Whatever it is, broaden your perspective beyond what is best for your P&L this month and help your team win the long game.
These three key jobs apply at all levels. Whether you’re leading your career (what’s your vision for your life?), leading a small team (how do you help each team member win?), or leading a large organization (have you thought about the culture you are promoting, and is it intentional?), these three key jobs of a leader need to be done in order to ensure long-term success. They transcend your job description and you will need to learn how to accomplish them for each different position you hold. Carve out 10 minutes today to think about it and ensure you are getting them done.
Patrick Leddin, PhD is a speaker, global leadership consultant, and The Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Five-Week Leadership Challenge. Patrick is an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University with a thriving leadership blog and podcast, and 25-years of leadership experience. He offers an unparalleled mix of academic rigor and real-world experience.