Have you ever worked with a great leader?
If so, think of the best of the bunch, and what differentiates him or her from all other leaders.
I recently asked this to 50 senior managers, after which they placed a hand on their chin, stared off into the distance and spent moments labouring for an answer. As I observed them in their moment of silence, I thought they were mentally debating the points that would distinguish the best from the rest.
Yet, what they were doing was trying to figure out if they had ever worked for a good leader. Several replied: "I don't think I have ever worked with a great leader."
This is quite an indictment on leaders, when senior managers have to spend minutes to try to think of a great example with whom they have worked and still come up empty. Does this mean there is a shortage of exemplar leaders from the follower's perspective?
For years it has been clear from observational and quantitative research that there is a gap between the perceptions of leaders and followers, specifically about how good the leaders really are. The leaders consistently think they are better than the followers give them credit for. The moral of the story, here, is that achieving the position of leader does not provide a sufficient reason to stop improving and growing.
There are some insights that can be gained regarding the original research question on what senior managers say separate the best leaders from the rest.
The best leaders focus on people and know how to get the most from their people. After all, leadership is mainly a people business; you don't lead plans or strategies. Rather, you create plans or strategies and then lead your people to accomplish them.
The interviews also revealed that leaders follow a "golden rule" of treating others the way they would want to be treated. In other words, they are approachable, authentic, positive and say things such as "thank you".
Another insight is that great leaders give guidance and direction. When a team has clarity on where they are heading the ambiguity is stripped away and the path to reaching the goal becomes smooth. Leaders don't miss the significance of this point. I polled leaders on how well they think they are at providing clarity, and their perception was overwhelming high.
Yet, followers cited the need for greater clarity as one of the top three workforce concerns. Giving clarity and direction can instantly improve productivity.
Finally, the research has shown that followers perform better when employees feel their leader believes in their ability to achieve. When leaders do not believe in their team, that is a formula for failure.
The bottom line: to differentiate yourself as a leader, simply put people first.
Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, author of The CEO Shift and the managing director of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center.