How to be a brilliant leader

I’ve never been on a Leadership course so I have just made it up as I went along. I never really aspired to be a ‘leader’, I wasn’t that interested in climbing  the greasy pole, I just wanted to get things done and make stuff happen. I found out very quickly that you need to get other people to help you do that and so you need a team.

Of course, I didn’t get it right straight away and made plenty of mistakes but somehow, through a combination of luck and judgement, I found my own a way to create and lead great teams. This is my distilled wisdom on what you need to pay attention to if you want to the same.

1. Create a safe environment

It’s a sad fact that many people don’t feel safe at work. They fear speaking up and voicing their opinions and ideas because they will get ridiculed, judged, shouted down, ignored or just plain bullied. They fear that if they stand out they will get picked upon, stamped on, singled out. Bottom line is that they fear they will be shamed and rejected, which is powerful because belonging is one of our deepest needs as human beings.

Now, you want these people to be enthusiastic, creative, open, innovative and inspired. You want them to bring their best selves, all their talents and to do their best work. You want them to take risks and experiment. But all that good stuff can’t happen if they are in fear and shame. These are creativity killers. So your job as a leader is to make them feel safe and so enable them to voice their opinions and make their unique contribution without any fear.

Google did a study into the key traits of high performing teams and psychological safety came out as number one, and by a long way (this surprised them, which says something about the tech world, I think). It seems obvious to me, I mean, when do you do your best stuff? When you are with people you trust, people who have your back, people who you know will stand shoulder to shoulder with you. The people you feel safe with.

You will have your own way of creating this environment and some of the other points here will help with that but, ultimately, it’s down to you. This is leadership.

2. Make everyone a leader

The heroic leader who has all the answers and makes all the decision is dead. He got killed by unforeseen circumstances.

You don’t have the monopoly on knowledge or wisdom and you certainly aren’t an expert at everything you need to have happen. Chances are you are the most stupid, least talented person in the room (this is always a wise assumption to make, in any case). But it’s OK because you are surrounded by loads of talent and the wisdom of the group. Use it by ensuring people step up to lead when they are the best person to take charge. Make sure that who is leading is determined by the situation and not by status or some sort of hierarchy, whether formal or informal, or even worse, by ego.

I see leadership as a role that is passed around and shared and should always be moved closest to expertise and knowledge. It’s your role as leader to make sure that happens, even if it means, paradoxically, that you hardly ever lead in any given situation.

Leadership failure is often a case of the decisions being taken by the wrong people. Just look at our politics right now. ‘Nuff said.

3. People first, always

You only lead when people follow you. You are only a leader when you take people with you.

Leadership is about people first, and then all that other stuff. So put people first, always.

I mean, it is just so bloody obvious isn’t it? But when we look at the work environment today, apparently not. Too many organisations treat the people as replaceable cogs and focus excessively on optimising processes and driving short-term efficiency and profit. Never mind if a few cogs get chewed up in the machine, if a few teeth get knocked off. Some companies run business models that depend on burning people out and having a ready supply of replacements (I see you, Amazon).

People first isn’t just a trite slogan. It means caring for people, taking an interest in their lives, wanting to see them thrive and showing them compassion and understanding. It means building deep and meaningful relationships and opening up your heart to them. It’s what Seth Godin calls emotional labour. It’s hard and testing but absolutely necessary and deeply rewarding.

Just treat the people you lead the way you would like to be treated, even if (and especially when) your leaders are not doing that to you. Do this and they will follow you anywhere.

4. Be first reserve

As I’ve already said, it’s about creating an environment where everyone can do their best stuff and so a lot of what I did was to be vigilant and keep an eye open for gaps and shortcomings. When I spotted something, then I would step in and fill the gap so that it didn’t undermine things.

Think of it like being in a football team and being ready to step in if someone gets injured, whatever position they happen to be in. You’re the first reserve on the bench (well, you’re the only reserve on the bench, most of the time!)

Now, it happens that I am a bit of a generalist so I could cover most things, for a little while at least. OK, my inability to head the ball was a bit of a drawback at centre forward and I was a truly useless goalkeeper, but even in those positions it was better to have me filling the space than have it empty. With a bit of luck, we could find a decent replacement before too long but in the meantime everyone else could do their stuff.

This means you have to be willing to roll your sleeves up and do whatever is necessary – refill the photocopier, make the tea, do the data entry. The main thing is to keep the team moving. The remarkable thing is that, when everyone sees you doing it, they start to do it too. Filling in the gaps becomes second nature and binds the team even closer together.

5. Challenge constantly and constructively

I’m a natural contrarian and devil’s advocate, so I am always asking why and challenging people. It’s not just to make me feel good, however. Too often mistakes happen because people made an assumption or just allowed something to go through without question. Challenging people’s thinking and actions helps them get real clarity of thought and deed. It leads to better decisions, more focused activity, better performance and personal growth. It’s a really healthy thing to do.

However, it has always to be constructive and respectful. You have to make sure people are always playing the ball and not the man, challenging the argument not attacking the individual making it. Make it clear that the intention is to improve the decision and to improve the person, to raise standards and get spectacular results.

The secret here is to create a high-performance culture where everyone is striving to be their best and seeking constant improvement (sports teams often focus on this – well, the successful ones do!). In this culture, challenge is seen positively because it is helping people to perform at their best, rather than being interpreted negatively as criticism and fault-finding as is the case in so many workplaces.

6. Laugh a lot

Humour is massively important to a great team environment. Laughter helps us bond socially and loosens us up, making us more open and receptive to new ideas. It relaxes us and that really helps us access our creativity.

When a team is having fun then it attracts others who want to be part of that.

It has to be inclusive and respectful, however. A bit of banter is fine but it mustn’t be a cloak for bullying or cliquey-ness. it’s your job as leader to make clear where the boundaries are and encourage the team to call out behaviour that strays across the line.

7. Be humble

Remember, you are probably the most stupid and incapable person in the room. What have you got to be so proud of? 

Humility is a really important quality for leaders as it builds trust and creates an open environment.  Hearing you say “I don’t know” allows others to admit their shortcomings and knowledge gaps and to ask for help, rather than trying to bullshit and bluster their way through (which, frankly, never ends well, does it?). 

Remember, you are not successful on your own, you can only be successful if your team is successful. You are totally reliant upon them. If that doesn’t give you some humility then you shouldn’t be in a leadership position. 

8. Be vulnerable

It’s OK to say you are unsure, daunted, scared, frightened. It’s not a sign of weakness, is a sign of strength and of courage.

Now, that may not be the culture that we’ve been brought up in, particularly for men, but it’s a fact. Hiding our emotions and ‘toughing it out’ is no good for anyone and especially for your team.  If you are having a tough time emotionally, and we all do, and you don’t explain what’s going on to your team, they will assume it’s their fault and that will cause all sorts of problems and kill team performance.

Everyone has emotions and they affect our behaviour and our judgement, so it’s really important that we acknowledge and understand them. Besides, they give us valuable feedback about what’s going on. I’m not saying you should burst into tears when you’re having a shitty day but it is definitely the right thing to do to share how you are feeling and ask for help – even if that is just to leave you alone and cut you a bit of slack if you get a bit snappy.

You are leading by example here and giving everyone in the team permission to be vulnerable too. Vulnerability will build trust between team members like you wouldn’t believe and will draw everyone together. It helps people deal with their emotions quickly before they get out of control and create problems. The big win here also is that on the other side of vulnerability lies creativity. You simply can’t get there any other way.

9. Be generous

I always looked for the best in people, I always assumed they had the best motivations. That’s not how a lot of organisations are set up. Just look at the staff handbook as see what the underlying assumptions are – people are lazy, untrustworthy, and need constant supervision. That’s why there are so many rules about just about everything!

In reality, very few people get up and think “Great, I’m going to go to work and do a really shit job today!”. People want to do something meaningful and fulfilling. They want to do the best they can, it’s your job to make sure they have a chance.

If you assume they are going to do their best then you don’t have to micromanage them and check up on them. You can just give the the objective and tell them you trust them to do it to the best of their abilities, with your support and encouragement when they need it. I have always been amazed at the talents and abilities that people reveal when they are given the chance. They come up with stuff that is way better than anything I could have even imagined. 

You also model to the team the value of generosity, which they will show to each other. That adds to the trust and good will that is being built up. Thinking the best of each other demonstrates respect and leads to harmonious relationships, releasing another level of performance all round. 

10. Be courageous

Leadership is a courageous act. It’s about standing for your views, for your values, for your mission, on our own if necessary. It about having the courage to be vulnerable and humble. Having the courage to open your heart and take the risk of making those deep connections. Having the courage to take on the cares and burdens of others and to ease their load.

It takes courage to say “I care”. 


Leader – Noun : lead-er :

Anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential.

Brene Brown – Dare to Lead

In truth, I’m a bit of an idealist at heart and I’ve always wanted to make the world a better place. That’s fuelled a desire to make stuff and happen and that desire is what’s made me a leader.

I’m not exceptional, though, because I believe we all have that capability within us, to some degree – and we need to find it and use it because the world needs leaders now, lots of them. Leaders who make stuff happen and in some small way start to change the world for the better. Leaders who develop the potential in others.

It’s not really for me to say whether I was a brilliant leader or not, it’s for others to judge. But I’m claiming it because believe that all leaders are brilliant. Just that very act of stepping up and saying ‘I care and I want to make this happen’ is a demonstration of brilliance. So few people do it that as soon as you take that step, you are already outstanding.

With the challenges we face today, we need a lot more leaders, we need a lot more people to step up and help to make the world a better place. So I urge you to go and lead. Go and show your brilliance.

We really need you to.

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