There’s a constant challenge involved in creating, leading and growing a business. Success takes time, money and energy away from one’s own self, one’s personal wellbeing. It’s the classic work-life balance equation, but with higher risks and rewards involved.
So what does a business leader need to think about? What qualities and interests will carry you forward into the new year?
A stressed leader isn’t insightful or empathetic. They’re less capable of listening to their customers or their employees, and that means they’re less agile and approachable in their business operations.
Your mental state affects your mindset and your motivation, and those will affect your ability to lead.
Surrounding yourself with the right people and influences will keep your mental health up. Be selective about the company you keep. If you’re surrounded by negativity and ambivalence, your behaviour and worldview will take on those influences. This is a two-way street, though: look after your fellow leaders, within your business and in your wider community of peers.
It’s vitally important to know your people. Invest time in getting to know your colleagues, and in letting them get to know you. That’ll help you recognise and handle the key tells, the signs that your team are under the weather. Emotional withdrawal or outbursts; sloppiness in their routine habits or punctuality; tiredness in the workplace; a drop in performance - all could be signs that something is not as it should be.
The best way to handle these things? One to one - and not in the office. Your office is where people go for a promotion, or a telling off, or to hear news. Go outside, walk around the building: take away the barrier of a desk and its power dynamic between you. Make it easy for them to unburden themselves. Think of a confessional - they feel safe because they’re impersonal and intimate, allowing people to talk to themselves.
Proactive and reactive thinking
Is a good leader proactive or reactive? Trick question. A good leader uses both approaches and knows when to lean one way or the other.
Reactive leadership is the ability to handle pressure in real time, solve problems on your own, and accept responsibility. The reactive leader is a firefighter, making snap decisions based on the current situation. It’s stressful - but it’s great for short-term challenges and crisis situations.
Proactive leadership is forward-looking, confident and analytical. It’s also contagious - if you’re doing the groundwork and showing how each element of your business will fit together, change and grow, your team will share that vision. But looking to the future can often leave you flummoxed if the present throws up a surprise.
It’s important to be flexible - not short or long sighted, but varifocal, able to look closely at the present or future and how you’ll get from one to the other.
The average adult makes 35,000 decisions every single day. By the end of the day, even insignificant choices become challenging, simply because you’ve made thousands of tiny choices already. This is decision fatigue - and when your decisions shape the entire operation of a growing business, you can’t afford to make them while tired, frayed and befuddled. Decision fatigue leads to illogical, snap decisions - or out and out inertia.
To handle it, pare down the number of choices you have to make. Create rules and routines for the most trivial choices, so you can go through the small domestic aspects of your day without thinking about them. Make your biggest decisions in the morning, when your mind is at its clearest and most productive. Don’t overthink and try to take in every factor: look for choices between ways of getting things done, and make them within a set time frame.
When you’re leading a team, putting yourself in another person’s shoes helps you predict what they want, how they feel, and how they’ll react to change or challenge. Empathy is a vital quality in effective leadership because it allows you to work around personal resistance before it emerges.
Take the time to ask questions about your employees. Find out what drives them, what challenges them, and what fulfils them - not just in the workplace but in their broader life. That will show you how they view your business, what they bring to its culture, and - crucially - how their approach differs from yours.
Clarity in your business’ vision statement, mission statement and communications helps you determine what you want. It helps you communicate what you want to your team. And, most importantly, it helps you tell people what to do in order to get what you want.
Clarity motivates and magnetises the people around you. Keep things simple. Articulate your vision one sentence at a time. Don’t use ten words where one will do. And stay consistent by reminding people of your vision and setting practical milestones along the way.
If you’re not excited about your work, how do you expect anyone else to be? Passion is the fuel that drives a business forward. People who are only in it for a paycheque seldom achieve growth; Robert Kriegel observes that it’s the passion-chasers who tend to become millionaires.
Effective leadership wants things. It cares about things. It’s building something that matters.
“Humble” and “leader” don’t seem like natural bedfellows, but humility is a powerful trait in a leader. It allows you to focus on the bigger picture - the direction and success of the business, rather than of the person who happens to be in charge of it. Instead of validating yourself, you’ll recognise the work of others, and instead of protecting your own self-image, you’ll admit when you were wrong.
You’ll be more tolerant of imperfection, more likely to recognise that nobody sets out to be bad at their job; dish out fewer workplace bollockings and more support, growth and personal development to help people do better. And crucially, you’ll be able and willing to get your hands dirty and do the work that makes your company grow, instead of sitting back and reaping the rewards of others’ labour.