Five Principles of Good Leadership

These are the attributes that make a good leader for me…your specific priorities might differ, but regardless of what you do, leadership matters. And if you’re a freelance writer, you still have to interact with managers and other individuals that serve in leadership positions. Bad leadership can be demoralizing or emotionally toxic. Forbes even noted that “people leave managers, not companies.”

A sense of mission

Good leaders, in my experience, have a definite sense of mission and an emotional investment in that mission. Mind you, the “mission” of a particular organization can vary greatly: selling merchandise, checking in/out guests at a hotel, answering guest letters, writing proposals for military hardware, or communicating about space missions. Regardless of the task at hand, good leader articulates how what you’re doing–however lowly or thankless the activity–contributes to some greater, more important enterprise, a greater good.

A sense of appreciation

I appreciate leaders who take the time to thank me for my dedication with sincerity. I’m often a sucker for “thank you.” Appreciation can take many forms. For example, introverts like me get uncomfortable with public displays of recognition. However, a quiet discussion that explains why an action was appreciated can do wonders. Others, of course, love public recognition in front of peers and others. Sometimes the recognition comes in the form of a raise or a bonus. Regardless of how it’s done, positive feedback is as necessary as constructive criticism and often rarer because some managers assume that if work is being done well, that such situations are the norm and don’t require thanks. That’s a mistake: they do.

An ability to inspire hard work

The first two abilities–a sense of mission and a willingness to thank employees for their efforts–make employees a lot more willing to go the extra mile for a leader when crunch times arise. Leaders of this type often are hard workers themselves and are often “in the trenches with the troops.” If they aren’t able to contribute directly to whatever work is being done, they are doing what they can to ensure that the team has the resources it needs and reduces any impediments to progress. Donna Shirley, former manager of the Mars Exploration program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, referred to her leadership role as acting like a cell wall: “[A] cell wall, what’s its function? It’s to let nutrients in and to keep bad chemicals and attacking viruses and stuff out.” Those efforts by a leader are appreciated.

A willingness to respect employee expertise

Occasionally, I’ve encountered individuals who ask me to edit or rewrite their work and then, when I do, they push back–either against my specific wording or my advice on how to approach a particular communication challenge. This can be particularly vexing when the leader in question specifically confesses ignorance about a subject. Repeated often enough, this behavior eventually creates reluctance to offer input or advice. After all, if you don’t know what you want or how to do something, and then you reject the advice given to you by a person you acknowledge as an expert, why should that expert bother? Respect for an employee’s expertise does not mean taking advice without qualification or explanation, though sometimes that happens. A leader might ask why an employee recommends a particular course of action, which is fair in my book, especially if the leader wants to understand the how and why of their thinking. If, after that explanation, the leader decides not to follow the advice, they should explain their reasoning as well. Respect can and should flow in both directions.

A willingness to back up their team

I’m not clear on how the term “thrown under the bus” came to be used, but I know what it feels like, and I’m certain a lot of people reading this do, too. If something goes awry on the job, and the bad results affect a customer or another team within the organization, the team wants to know that their manager will stand up for them, not blame the mishap on their incompetence. Good leaders also maintain the “cell wall” attitude by doing what they can to ensure that they get the resources or support they need from other organizations within reasonable constraints. And if the team does not get the resources they need, that leader will go to bat and try to obtain relief elsewhere. Good leaders speak well of their team and don’t engage in a lot of backstabbing or gossiping with other leaders about the deficiencies of the team.

All of these behaviors engender a sense of trust. If a leader loses their team’s trust, they can also expect to lose all of the rest of the attributes described above. But given an environment of vision, sincere appreciation, shared work, mutual respect, and trust, leaders can create high-performing teams who will want to work with that leader again and again.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Five Principles of Good Leadership

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Thanks, Bart. You’ve given us a good set of metrics for leaders to measure their effectiveness. My favorite leadership model is the servant leader. Even though you didn’t use the exact term, you captured the gist of it under “An ability to inspire hard work.” The servant leader says to the employees, “You’re doing important work. My job is to help you succeed — and to make sure that you get the credit.” I’ve been fortunate to work for several servant leaders and you’re right: it is inspiring.

  2. Bart Leahy says:

    I have Servant Leadership on my bookshelf. I’m a fan. Thanks for the comments!

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