Four Things Great Leaders Do

By Shelby Rowe Moyer

If you’re in a managerial position, the question of “what makes a great leader?” has probably crossed your mind at some point. We can all think back to good (and bad) managers we’ve had and pinpoint qualities that made them delightful or difficult to work for.

But a great leader is, in short, someone people love to work for, says executive coach Kimberly Jarvis.

For the past 20 years, Jarvis has been working to help foster and develop the careers of MBA students and professionals, and she founded her own executive coaching and consulting firm, All Career Matters, in 2018.

Over the last several decades a lot of research has been conducted to learn what engages and motivates employees, which ultimately drives productivity, great customer service, increases profit and more.

Jarvis says a good leader makes all the difference, and there are several attributes and behaviors that are shared by the best managers and executives: empathy and respect, offering timely feedback, requesting feedback and outlining and communicating company goals. Some of these elements come naturally to some people, but they can also be learned, Jarvis says.

“I don’t call these ‘soft skills,’” Jarvis says, of these qualities and behaviors. “There’s nothing ‘soft’ about them. I think they’re just incredibly valuable. They’re not technical skills to do a job, but that doesn’t make them less important.”

COMMUNICATION

Managers are the filter through which organizational changes and goals are disseminated. Jarvis says some things will, of course, remain confidential, but it’s important that leaders be upfront and transparent with employees as much as possible — whether it’s the state of the company or how each individual makes an impact.

“In the absence of information, people make up their own stories about what’s happening, what it means for the company or whether or not they’re going to succeed,” Jarvis says.

The pandemic is a great example. Most, if not all, workplaces were affected in some way. Jarvis says good managers need to be able to understand and navigate complex situations, so they can lead their teams through inevitable ebbs and flows.

But communication needs to extend beyond project and company updates. It’s also critical that leaders offer direct feedback that’s positive and constructive.

“I think the bigger hurdle is when constructive feedback needs to be shared — when someone’s behavior is getting in the way of their goals or their team’s goals. People will often shy away from sharing that feedback for various reasons, and one common reason is that they feel like it’s not very nice.”

Though it might feel uncomfortable to provide constructive criticism, withholding it is even more detrimental, because the manager is effectively withholding an opportunity for that person to change and improve, according to Jarvis.

EMPATHY

Providing a culture and an environment where people feel psychologically safe, respected and that their managers care about them is imperative, Jarvis says. Empathy is a foundational tenet of all great leaders.

“[It’s crucial to have] a boss that knows that we’re human and that we have human, messy lives — lives outside of work, medical situations that will arise and childcare situations,” she says.

Part of leadership is understanding that employees are people, and people make mistakes. Jarvis says it’s helpful when employees know that they’re allowed to make those mistakes, and that it’s OK, as long as they learn from them.

ASK FOR FEEDBACK

Whether it’s formally or informally, managers should be asking their employees for feedback — even a question as simple as: What can I do to better support you?

“If they ask that question regularly, and they hear the answer and they have a relationship of trust with the person, they’ll eventually hear what they can do differently to better support the person,” Jarvis says. “They’ll hear things like: ‘Let me own my own work.’ Or: ‘Stop asking me to update you on every single detail; I feel like you don’t trust me.’ Or: ‘I need more help and direction than you’re giving me. I don’t know what the next step is.’”

If a manager is asking for feedback, but they consistently hear, “Keep doing what you’re doing,” then they need to push back, Jarvis says. Surely the employee can think of one thing that can be improved, Jarvis says.

And once you get this feedback, do something with it. Use that feedback to create professional goals, she says. How do you, as the manager, want to change the way you’re behaving or operating? Outline how you’d like to grow and develop, and pair that with actions you can implement in a timely fashion.

STAY FOCUSED

It’s easy to get distracted by the project or problem of the day. Effective leaders need to stay focused on the big picture. What projects or actions will help move the company forward? Disseminate those priorities to your team, explain its impact and ask them to help hold you accountable.

“Sometimes it’s easy to focus on activity versus results,” Jarvis says. “It’s easy to feel like you’re getting a lot done. But what are you actually accomplishing? What are the results of those activities?”

WANT MORE RESOURCES?

Jarvis says Robert I. Sutton’s “Good Boss, Bad Boss,” is so good she says she wants to clap while she’s reading it. The newest edition has a new chapter with insights on what Sutton has learned since writing the first iteration of the book. Sutton also breaks situations down into simple comparisons with charts that detail how a good boss might approach a situation versus a bad boss.

Jarvis also recommends Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead.” This research-based, best-selling title explores and explains how to mold braver, more daring leaders and how to develop a workplace culture that inspires courage.

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