[Also available as a Podcast]
No, it is not a myth. Many of us have actually seen this phenomenon, or even been lucky enough to work with an Effective Leader. If you were really lucky, they were also your manager/ team leader/ project manager etc.
Ok, to be fair, Effective Leadership is not quite that rare - but uncommon enough that people definitely appreciate it when they see it - and they wished they had it too.
My experience with an Effective Leader
1989 - Back at the beginning of my first career, straight out of University, I was quite fortunate to be hired by an Effective Leader. Of course, I did not know that at the time, but as time went on this became more and more apparent as teams came and went - and his stayed together.
We identified with him, the team was loyal to him, even through a multi-year dissolution of the company into fragmented parts - in part, because he was also loyal to us. In the final stages of the corporate sell-off, while other departments in our part of the business saw an attrition rate of 70-90% over a 6 month period, his department lost only 2 people in the same period of time. And those only did so after long soul searching on career direction.
Over a period of 11 years, his team stayed together, until he recognized a strange truth - in order for his team to grow further on their personal development paths, he had to leave the company.
In our case, we not only had an Effective Leader, but an exceptional one.
So what makes an Effective Leader? And does that person need to be "the boss"?
Ten Attributes of an Effective Leader
An Effective Leader has a firm ethical compass. They stick to what they know is right, even in the tough times, and do not easily bow to social pressure or fads. They also make sure that their team embodies the same ethics - honesty, looking out for the customer, doing the right things - right, etc. And not a "closet ethic" - it shows in how they conduct themselves every day.
2. People Skills
An Effective Leader has good people skills, and can communicate effectively with their peers and their team, as well as up and down the corporate ladder. They don't have to be a gracious public speaker to hundreds or thousands, but they do communicate well within their sphere of influence. And Exceptional Leaders develop a significant sphere of influence.
3. Not the Boss
In those 11 years, except for a few periods while on projects with a different department, I did not have a Boss. I had a Manager, a Coach, and a Leader - not a "Boss". An effective leader works with their team, encourages and supports them. Sure, there are plenty of times the leader needs to have things done a certain way, in a certain time - but the difference lies in how they communicate it. A Boss demands the work be done - a Leader requests it and expects it do be done properly - and those working for them are dedicated to doing just that.
4. Praise in Public - Criticize in Private
We have all heard this mantra - and it certainly makes a difference not being "dressed down" in public. However, an Effective Leader takes this one step further - when discussing issues in private, the Effective Leader rarely brow-beats their team member - even if they want to. They address the issues, the behaviour - whatever was at fault, but in a way that does not rip the team apart. If anything, their expression of caring for the team member while firmly addressing the issues at fault further strengthens the team and engenders loyalty and respect. Yes - you will be held accountable, Yes - you are expected to do things right/on time/etc. No - your Leader is not a push-over, and you cannot "get away" with poor performance or behaviour. But you leave the conversation wanting to improve/fix it - you want to live up to their higher expectations of you.
5. Formal vs Informal Authority
An Effective Leader knows how to get the job done - and how to use their formal authority as well as forms of informal authority (primarily influence). As we know, formal authority is bestowed with a title/job description, and not always respected fully if the person does not behave in accordance to the expectations of the role. You may "have to" do what is asked - that is more "Boss" talking. However, an Influencer gets things done by those around them by earned influence and respect - and people wanting to help. Exceedingly happy to help, even - because they know they can rely on the Effective Leader to help when they need it. A formal title may change - but influence tends not to fade that easily.
An Effective Leader both demonstrates and earns loyalty - through consistent interactions with their team members, standing up for them, and expecting the best from them. They are great people to work for (and with), but they are not just an easy-going smile-a-lot, they are firm when needed too. They will stand up for you with the higher-ups and with other departments, but they also expect you to live up to their expectations as well.
An Effective Leader does not change their stripes according to the day - you can rely on them to be consistent in behaviour. Even when they have a bad day (and we all do), they do not completely change direction, and do not lash out at the team when frustrated. You know what to expect in your dealings with them - on good and bad days too.
Effective Leaders help to grow their team - collectively and individually. They support team members trying new things, advancing themselves by learning new skills - and providing opportunites to practice their new skills in the workplace. And it's OK to fail - if you are learning something new, you willl not get it right the first time. An Effective Leader understands this, and helps you to progress to the next level, without knocking you down a peg for failing while trying.
Effective Leaders are not the experts in what you do at the detail level. Maybe they used to know it once, but that is no longer their role - they know their value lies in orchestrating the team of experts to perform at their peak, and deliver the goods - on time, with high quality of results, etc. They become experts in working with people instead.
Finally, an Effective Leader cares. About the team, about the company, about the customer, about the result - and about You. You can see this whenever you work with a team led by an Effective Leader, there is a whole different nurturing atmosphere. People want to be there, and are happy to do whatever it takes to succeed - because they are making a difference and know they are appreciated.
Nobody is perfect, even Effective Leaders. However they are consistent in what they do, and they do it well, which you can see by looking at the people that surround them. You might also say there are more attributes of Effective Leaders, and I would agree. If pressed, I could also boil it down to two main words - Caring and Consistency. But in truth, there is really so much more to it as you see above.
Can we all learn to be Effective Leaders? Certainly! Few are born as Effective Leaders, those who have a high natural aptitude for it. Most Effective Leaders start out as good observers of people, and can learn the extra skills along the way. And having a good role model/mentor and exposure to Effective Leaders certainly helps too.
I have had the good fortune to work with (and for) an Effective Leader for a good portion of my career, and when I am uncertain of what to do in some leadership situations, I think back and ask myself "what would he do?".
Am I an Effective Leader? Honestly, I can say not yet - though I am on the path and still striving to be closer - still wanting to live up to the expectations planted over two decades ago.
To my Mentor, Coach, Manager and Friend (you know who you are) - thanks for being a great example. Your influence continues.