Do you ever wonder what truly makes an effective leader?
There are tons of leadership “experts” out there all giving their own opinions. And that’s where the trouble lies: they are simply opinions or experiences that worked for them one time and nicely fit into their narrative.
We figured it was time to figure it out for ourselves. In the second half of 2019, my team and I invested over 250 hours running an in-depth study of 190 business leaders from around the world. We dug into the simple question of what’s holding people back from being a more successful and effective leader.
We’ve just sorted through all the data and I’m sharing it here for the first time.
(*Note: a majority of respondents were from the US and UK. It also spanned a wide range of industries, though I estimate 60% were from either the technology industry or tech field)
This consisted of a survey and one-on-one individual interviews, as we wanted to make sure we understood not only where they were stuck, but why, and how to overcome it.
There are five key areas to highlight as a result of the study:
1. Confidence is Essential
As the top challenge all leaders face, and surprisingly #2 among business owners, lack of confidence is a huge issue for leaders.
Commonly referred to as Imposter Syndrome, this consists of a loud critical voice telling the leader that they are not worthy of the position they are in and leads to self-doubt, lack of appropriate risk taking, lack of taking charge and assertiveness, self-preserving ego-based behavior, bullying, anger, self-sabotage, stress, anxiety, and more.
(One time I facilitated a YPO forum, with two people who ran companies over $2 billion / year in revenue, and they admitted that they still can feel like frauds. You don’t outrun these feelings on unworthiness. Unless you get to the root cause, they continue to plague you.)
There is a lot of talk about authenticity and vulnerability in leadership with good reason. Leaders that display these traits are more trusted, people follow more naturally, and at the end of the day get better results.
What is not commonly known is that authenticity and vulnerability are results of more confidence and more self-esteem. You can’t just flip a switch and be more authentic and vulnerable. You have to work on a better relationship with one’s self first.
To give you an idea on how we are using the results of this study, after compiling the data and understanding more about the issue, we re-tooled our training to focus even more on giving leaders the confidence, self-esteem, resilience, and proper mindset to overcome this imposter syndrome, embrace being a powerful leader, and thrive.
2. Leaders don’t know how to “Be” Strategic
When we refer to not being strategic, this has little to do with coming up with a strategic plan. It has to do with acting strategically in everyday life.
Most leaders said they didn’t have time to work on strategic things in their business; there was so much tactical work to do and they were always fighting fires.
On closer examination, in a vast majority of cases, they were keeping themselves stuck right where they were.
This happens for a few reasons;
They are comfortable in their functional role. By fixing other people’s problems and getting involved in the area they are experts in (sales, marketing, programming, etc.), it gives them a sense of importance and admiration from the staff. Their ego likes that.
They often don’t know their strategic role. They may understand strategy, though they don’t understand what their role looks like as a strategic leader. They don’t make time for strategic thinking and don’t have the systems in place to support that.
They aren’t delegating. Delegating is an art and most people don’t know the proper way to delegate, so they don’t do it well and it comes back to haunt them and it causes them to pull back on delegating; this and the fact that they are more comfortable in their functional role (the first one, above), means that they are causing themselves to be consumed with the tactical work.
They need to keep others accountable. They don’t have a system for letting go of the task while also making sure it gets done properly.
They need to coach and empower their team. Related to the previous point, true coaching skills are lacking in a leader’s skillset. By empowering people, they shed tasks, stress, and responsibility, enabling themselves to focus on moving forward strategically.
(I recently worked with a business owner named Tim who exhibited all these traits. He was a great salesperson, though they needed him to step up and strategically move the company forward. He learned how to be strategic, and this included delegating, coaching the team, empowering them, and putting in systems to create a culture of accountability.)
3. Struggling Leaders have Major Unseen Blind Spots
When leaders struggle it creates a ripple effect far outside the office. It affects their personal and family life much more often than anyone admitted.
We know this because first, we had the leaders fill out a survey; then we went back and interviewed them.
This is an area that didn’t show up much in the surveys, though the interviews told a whole different story.
Leaders who weren’t performing in their role were spiraling down. They would really be feeling the stress of letting people down – worried that their business would stop scaling or even fail, or if they’re an employee, not getting promoted, or even demoted or fired.
If any of those happened, the effects on their self-esteem would be devastating.
We also found that struggling leaders were more prone to depression and would try to hide in addictive behaviors; alcohol, drugs, binge eating, TV, games, social media, gambling.
(If you go to YouTube and see my story, you can learn how I went through alcohol & substance abuse, lawsuits, a business owner assaulting me, restraining orders, and more in my leadership journey.)
Often their spouse / partners and kids were telling them they were being absent, as most were putting in a lot of hours. Working late at the office, then getting back on the computer in the evenings and weekends.
Even when they were with their family, it wasn’t quality time. These leaders said they would be not present with family members, thinking about work, and constantly on their phone.
4. It’s not about the Money or Power
In 100% of the cases, the driver for leaders wanting to become more effective was NOT money or power. They wanted to make more of an impact and serve their company, team, and customers to a greater degree. (My words, not theirs!)
Most people are great at their pre-management jobs because they love what they do and how they help people. As they get into the leadership position, they see how they can make more of an impact on a larger scale.
Often though they don’t get the right training or support. These former high achievers are now floundering, and they don’t have anywhere to go.
When you are running into challenges in leadership it is hard to go to someone in your own company for help, as it may reflect poorly on you. (That’s why internal mentors only go so far.)
They try to “wing-it”, do the best with what they have, and often try to outwork the problem by working a ton of hours and picking up the slack of their team by themselves. This caps the effectiveness and growth of their whole team.
Then this former superstar employee ends up tired and burned out and defeated, then no one wins.
5. Proper Leadership Development is a Science and Art
It’s very difficult for leaders to truly get what they need to level up.
First, most “Leadership” training is really “Management” training. As you can see from the results of the study, confidence and mindset are key components of being a great leader…yet it’s almost never taught.
We have found to create high-performance leaders they need several components to truly transform:
A Practical System of Tools and Skills: there needs to be a system that’s been proven in the field. Leaders need a playbook to follow and a set of skills to use. Overly academic models that have a whole bunch of theory just confuse people. And leaders run into so many different challenges every day, the best thing to do is to arm a leader with all the tools they need to get the job done.
(One woman attended a workshop of mine and came up to me afterward. She had just been through a six-month long “leadership” training program with her work. She said “Thank you – know I know what leadership is REALLY about. I was missing something, and this was it.”)
New Habits: Our subconscious drives up to 95% of our behavior. Leaders need to shed the habits that have been holding them back while developing new ones. This does not happen in a three-day training course.
Community & Support: Leadership is DIFFICULT, and leadership can be ISOLATING. Having peers to share celebrations with so that you know that you’re not the only one going through something can be a life-saver.
(After one of my recent leadership masterminds calls a business owner who was new to the group texted me “Wow! Just to know that I’m not the only one with these challenges really helps me so much. Thank you!”)
OK, those are the problems…what’s the solution?
That’s why my team and I have taken the results from this study, along with our own experience of leading teams and companies and mixed that with what we’ve learned from teaching leaders at organizations like Microsoft, Uber, YPO, and Stanford University, and come up with what we’re calling the Leadership Impact Formula.
It addresses all the top issues using a combination of emotional intelligence, psychology, and neuroscience, and we’ve wrapped everything up into a series of practical, immediately relevant tools, skills, and habits to teach leaders to have a greater impact in their company and the world.
It all starts with Mindset. Leaders need that confidence and resilience, because leadership is about taking risks. You won’t be able to scale a company or grow a team without big doses of both of those.
You need to teach yourself to become strategic in all areas and have the mindfulness to connect to others while being kind and compassionate to yourself.
Leaders need to be Strategic. This means so much more than having a strategic plan – it means that everything you do has to be through a strategic lens.
Most people make it to leadership because they’re proficient tactically. Now they have to switch their thinking to making sure every decision they make takes a strategic view of things.
And while being of service (i.e. focusing on delivering value and helping others) isn’t necessary to make a lot of money and be short-term successful, I believe that it’s the duty for us as leaders to really do good in the world.
Building a high-performing team, i.e. Team Leadership, consists of having the right people focused on the right things.
It’s amazing that once you get the right culture in place, your team will actually hold each other accountable. Until then it’s up to you to set the tone and hold people accountable in an uplifting, empowering way.
When you have any two of these aspects in place, it provides positive results.
When you have the confidence and presence of a leader, and are clear in your vision, you get rabid loyalty and a motivated, inspired team.
With a strong purpose and an accountable team, your culture will start to form, and you’ll get the engaged workforce that you’ve been looking for.
And when you coach and empower people, and when you show up strategically and powerfully, people will respect you as a leader and you’ll have great performance.
Of course, when you have all three aspects dialed in, that’s when you make a real impact. You will start to have wide-ranging influence, and success in all areas will follow.
What do you see out there? Does your experience match what we’ve found and I’ve shown here?
Interested in more? If you have a group of leaders that would get value from both the study results and how to implement the Leadership Impact Formula into their own lives, you can see if I’m available for a keynote speech, company workshop, or if it’s for you personally, to join an upcoming mastermind.
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R. Michael Anderson is a 3x Software Entrepreneur from California who later went on to earn a master’s in psychology. He now is an investor, advisor, and mentor and works with leaders at firms such as PWC, SAP, and Salesforce.