How to Be a Better Leader at the Office
Senior leadership in corporate to creative environments requires a specific skillset. In my storied career as both freelance gun-for-hire and corporate worker bee, I’ve been on both sides of the fence and personally experienced a wide and colorful array of chiefs. When you’re low on the totem pole, a driven and charismatic captain is everything. Quality leadership is not just about sounding the charge and minimizing obstacles: A great leader can generate team culture, inspire genius, and push boundaries. What is the measure of a great boss? Keep scrolling to find out.
One of the most shocking things to me upon entering the workforce was how willing “big” people were to take a lunch. I’ve sent cold emails reaching out to major directors I admired or artists whose work meant something to me. In my experience, the most successful people generate positivity and inspire those around them to be great. Be it an advisory board or a single figurehead, effective professionals model their behavior and trade notes. Stand on the shoulders of genius. Approach your career with the focus and precision of a professional athlete, and get yourself a coach.
Not everything you communicate to your team is coming out of your mouth. Everything from body language to personal style sends a distinct message. Be intentional and precise with your language. Eliminate words such as “like” and “um” from your vocabulary completely. They dilute your message. Be willing to pivot communication to fit the needs of your team. Some employees hit the ground running with a direct, down-to-brass-tacks approach. Others thrive under a cheerleader. Evaluate what works instead of getting hung up on your personal idea of how you “should be.”
In the words of Dr. Wayne Dyer, “Truly inspiring leaders get results by their own example: They encourage others to be responsible and do the right thing, but not by proclaiming and bragging about their unimpeachable management. They create space for others to be inspired and to achieve their own greatness.” The most fun work environments are those in which there is group purpose. When your squad’s loyalty and enthusiasm is earned, it’s a reward in itself, and as a bonus, it inevitably produces the best work.
From film sets to design firms, my favorite work worlds were led by people who took the company culture very personally. If you want to inspire your team, get to know what makes them tick. Ask personal questions. Knowing when to push and when to pull back just may afford you a soothsaying-like ability to see both breakthroughs and breakdowns coming a mile away. Ultimately, how a team functions is a reflection of leadership. Great leadership often goes unsung. To quote philosopher and ancient Chinese poet Lao Tzu, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”
The freedom to fail is crucial for any creative environment. As Steve Jobs said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Innovation requires risk. Failure is inevitable in a risk-averse environment. You’re not going to knock it out of the park without taking a few swings. As a creative, I most dread most the feeling of entering a boardroom where there is zero room for bad ideas. The best pitch meetings I’ve ever attended began with the world’s worst ideas being casually bandied about the table. If what you resist truly does persist, then a fear of failure is the surest way to fail. Keep it loose, foster creativity, and most importantly, don’t quit.
There’s a quote in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise that has always been with me: “That competitive instinct only wants a badge. If the size of their house is the badge, they'll sweat their heads off for that. If it's only a blue ribbon, I damn near believe they'll work just as hard.” People crave recognition for their unique contributions. Being publicly praised in front of a team can be a bigger incentive to do well than even a bonus or title boost. If a member of your team does well, make it mean something. There’s nothing worse than feeling like your success goes unnoticed or undervalued. Offering up specific praise inspires others to up their game and keeps your star players thriving.
This first requires you to know your blind spots. How do you learn about these hidden pitfalls? You ask your team. You ask your mentors. You ask your family and friends. Be interested. Your goal should be to come away from the conversation with a solid impression of how you occur for other people. What is it really like to be with you? This process will inevitably send a lot of opinions your way. You don’t have to take every note. Be open to constructive criticism. Ask how you can facilitate growth. What can you do to make others better? Even if the answer is “I don’t know,” the gesture opens the door to an environment of camaraderie and support.
I was the kid in school who dreaded group projects. A group project for me translated to “Everybody go home; I’ve got this. We’ll all be getting A’s!” Straight A’s do not a leader make. Effective managers know when to pass the ball. It’s not about being the best man on the team. Micromanaging or bulldozing through every task is disempowering to your staff and will not bring in the best results. Get comfortable with assigning work.
You can paint a perfect picture of how every person on your team should perform and how each result needs to show up, or you can go with what actually works. Let go of your attachment over how things “should” be, and ask yourself what’s working. One of my favorite theories on human behavior is that all behavior is useful. Every behavior has a payoff. If you find yourself or your team in a pattern you want to break, evaluate what you’re getting out of it. Do you get to stay safe? Be right? Figure out what you’re holding onto, and let it go. The best results come from bold experimentation.
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Opening Image: Anya Hindmarch