You’re probably not a good leader (because being that is hard)

Most entrepreneurs believe that they’re good leaders because their team does what they ask them to do.

But that’s not leadership – that’s simply people working because you’re paying them money to work. There’s a big difference between compliance and commitment. Entrepreneurs often get compliance with their decisions, but they end up thinking they’re getting commitment.

Leadership is difficult because human nature is complex. Humans are capable of simultaneously admiring and despising people who have a higher status, more money or better prospects than them. This makes the job of a leader tricky because she has to focus on the quality of work and get the job done, despite who did it (an admirer or a hater). The leader has to somehow navigate people’s widely different emotions, desires, and personalities and make them work together to deliver an organization’s goals.

Now, that’s tough.

What makes an effective leader is hard to summarize, but let’s give it a try. Here are the 10 hard steps to become a good leader:

1. Everyone wants to progress, but only leaders are willing to sacrifice for it

We all know what’s good for us: exercising regularly, eating healthy food, not smoking, and meditating. Yet, how many of us have the willpower to follow through?

Wanting and really wanting are two different things. Really wanting requires sacrificing short-term happiness for long-term success. You know this already, but you also know that the common wisdom is hard to follow through. We all fall into temptations decided by our today’s mood.

Leadership requires not falling into today’s temptation and putting in long hours when you least feel like doing it. To be a leader is to sacrifice today for tomorrow.

2. Leaders look up, while non-leaders look sideways

When we’re young in our careers, it’s natural to bond with co-workers and peers of similar age. And just like college, it’s easy to huddle up with work friends and get into a comfort zone.

We are a sum of people we spend time with. If your standards of work quality and effort are set by your peer group, you’ll progress slowly. To be a leader is to always set your standards to what people much better than yourself have (and not the standards that people like you in your peer group have).

3. Leaders select themselves in roles of leadership

It’s a myth that people are promoted to leadership positions. Leaders don’t wait for an official leadership position or title. They simply start behaving like leaders wherever they are, and then the organization simply gives them a leadership title to recognize what they were anyway doing.

As the name implies, leadership means leading the organization and not just following instructions (of investor, if you’re an entrepreneur or manager, if you’re an employee). 

Your chosen direction could be wrong, so you may gravitate towards playing it safe and only doing what is explicitly asked. But that’s not leadership. To lead is to take the risk of being entirely wrong.

4. Leaders make themselves dependable and indispensable

Different people have different definitions of ‘work’. For most people, ‘work’ is a set of activities they need to perform to make a salary. For leaders, ‘work’ is more personal, as they put their soul into their work. Because they have high standards, they take it personally when they fail to deliver. They know it’s upon them to work harder if the deadlines are tight, or when they’re asked to do the impossible.

Irrespective what project is given to them, a leader rarely externalize failure on someone else. Leaders never make excuses. Never. They always take it upon themselves to do whatever it takes to get stuff done.

While others are working, leaders are delivering. The tenacity and stubbornness to deliver good results make them dependable. Because the organization knows they always deliver, they’re given more responsibilities, and they get pulled into the most important projects. Leaders consistently prove their ability to deliver, and that’s how they become indispensable.

5. Discipline is a superpower and leaders know that

To be disciplined is to always come on time, taking copious notes in discussions, delivering before deadlines, doing regular and consistent follow-ups, and most importantly, keeping your promises. Sounds simple, but many leaders fail at these basics spectacularly and their team realizes this and gradually that becomes the norm.

For people early in their careers, being disciplined is probably the #1 predictor of their success. (And it’s also unfortunate how few know that it is so important).

As they say, the secret to life is simply showing up.

6. Leaders are unpopular among their peers because they work hard, know more and deliver regularly

It’s counter-intuitive, but leaders quickly become unpopular in their peer group because they’re just so much better at what they do. This growing unpopularity makes many would-be leaders uncomfortable, and they start changing their behavior to gain approval from their peer group.

Leaders who break through and progress rapidly swallow the bitter pill and do what’s right for their growth. A group of non-leaders is like friends – they comfort each other. A group of leaders is like a soccer club – they know that their lack of performance cannot be justified because someone else on their team are not performing. They understand that when the next season comes, it’ll be their performance that’ll count first, and only then the performance of the team they belong.

7. Leaders are intimidating because they’re masters of their craft

When you talk to leaders, they’re capable of intimidating you because they know so much about their field. All great leaders are functional experts. You put them against a peer in the same function, and they’ll know more both in depth and in breadth.

This almost PhD-level mastery of their field requires long stretches of tinkering, reading, and thinking. And the interesting part is: nobody asks them to master their craft. It’s easy for them to be good at what they do, but they’re not satisfied at that: they want to become great at what they do.

Non-leaders have a ‘fixed’ mindset and accept their fate of learning ability or IQ. Leaders have a ‘growth’ mindset, and that makes them put in additional hours every day required to master their craft. (The extra hours require sacrifice, but that’s requirement #1 for leadership)

8. Leaders lift the entire boat, and not just themselves

Leaders are independent but not individualistic.

People who’re individualistic in nature hit a ceiling in their career because as they grow, they find their job transform from doing great work by themselves to helping others do great work. But because bright young people are driven to succeed, they start competing with the very people they’re expected to help.

To be a leader is not to be competitive. It’s to be great at what you do and proactively going around in the organization asking everyone ‘hey, how can I help you?‘. Taking the analogy of a football club, this means a star player knows that to be successful, s/he has to perform his/her best and coach / encourage / mentor fellow players to perform their best.

The selfish path to greatness is to help others become great.

9. Leaders are firm in their resolve but never disrespect

One of the hardest parts of becoming a leader is to learn how to be firm and direct, without being an asshole. It’s easy to tilt in either direction: you can be nice and accommodating, but get pulled down by the tendency to please others. Or you can be rude and tell others how pathetic they are.

Neither of these is OK. What’s required is a fine balance where you’re direct but respectful. Assholes that perform spectacularly hit a ceiling in their career. So do really sweet people who get rolled over by lack of performance by their peers or team.

10. Leadership is hard so it’s OK not to aim for leadership, but it’s not OK to whine

Leadership is glamorous as leaders get fat salaries, prestige, and juicy projects. But it’s also not meant for everyone.

To summarize, leadership requires ALL the attributes below:

  • Putting in long hours at work
  • Being paranoid about discipline
  • Moving mountains to deliver impossible asks
  • Being OK when other people dislike you
  • Offering to help everyone around
  • Mastering your craft inside-out
  • Proactively and continuously tinkering, learning, and thinking
  • Taking risks by doing more than what’s asked
  • Starting uncomfortable conversations but not losing temper

You miss an attribute, and you toss away your chances at leadership. This means leadership requires deliberate effort over long stretches of time. It’s a process that never ends because there’s always a better leader out there who can do what you do better and faster.

Remember: choose leadership as a career choice ONLY if you’re willing to work for it. It’s okay to select a comfortable career, too, as long as it’s a deliberate choice. What’s not OK is wanting to progress, but not willing to sacrifice for that progress. Sorry, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

This essay is part of my book on mental models for startup founders.

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