How to Be an Outstanding Leader
In 47 B.C., after his conquest of Gaul (modern-day France and Belgium) and his victory over Pompey the Great in a civil war, Julius Caesar returned to Rome only to find that several of his most experienced legions had mutinied, demanding back pay, bonus pay, and to be discharged. Negotiations were slow and his troops began to loot villas and farms south of the city, and despite Caesar’s incredible successes it seemed as if his fate, and that of Rome itself, hung in the balance — regardless of what he had achieved up to that point, this mutiny brought with it the uncertainty that everything he had accomplished was soon to be undone.
After several months of stalemated overtures and negotiations, knowing that he needed these men to follow him to war in North Africa, Caesar personally visited their camp and in what is now a legendary speech he not only regained their loyalty, but so emotional was his discourse that the legions’ men begged, begged him for forgiveness and thereafter followed him to victory in Africa.
What made Caesar such a great leader? When we think of great leaders it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that great leaders are born with some magical form of genius, self-agency or some other quality that they naturally possess.
It’s understandable why so many people rest on that assumption — it comes from a position of comfort. It’s a lot easier to look at people like Steve Jobs and tell ourselves that they’re magical unicorns with a power we’ll never understand, because that absolves us of the hope and responsibility that comes from the belief that we, too, can be a leader.
But you’ve taken time out from your day to read this because there’s something in you that knows you can be better than that. You are an achiever and there’s a small voice inside you encouraging you to dream a little bigger and hope a little higher and see what happens. And thank goodness for that voice, because it’s right.
The ability for you to become a great leader is well within your reach. It’s simply a matter of learning what skills and qualities make a good leader and how to apply them to your own life.
So, let’s explore those ideas now so that you can start your path to great leadership today.
What was it that Julius Caesar said to bring an army on the brink of full-scale rebellion back to his side and to beg for his forgiveness?
He had campaigned with these soldiers throughout Europe for over 10 years and throughout that time he took great care to get to know many of them personally. Caesar held an intimate understanding of what his soldiers cared about and what would inspire them toward his vision. Acting on this knowledge, he appealed to the one thing Romans had in abundance: pride.
His legions had asked for their discharge, which is the process by which soldiers are returned to the civilian world. And so, when he stood before them, he referred to them as quirites — citizens — rather than as soldiers, shaming them so much that the mutiny ended virtually immediately.
Your leadership is defined, to a large extent, by the quality of your relationships: your relationships with your family, friends and significant other, your professional relationships and your relationship with yourself.
Relationships are so fundamentally important because it’s only the connections we make with one another that allow us to break free of perceived limitations and lead to new places. And we don’t mean the kind of superficial networking connections you might make while schmoozing at a company happy hour. We’re talking deep, personal connections where you truly get to know someone and their fundamental needs — needs that, as a leader, you can appeal to when inspiring positive, lasting change in that person.
To make these connections, we need to think beyond the simple skill of building rapport to serve whatever our need is at the moment, and instead focus on truly understanding and appreciating where people are coming from so that we can best serve them.
In an effort to lure Pepsi-Cola’s then-president, John Sculley, to Apple, Steve Jobs famously asked, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want to change the world?” Jobs had a beautiful, compelling vision that did ultimately come to fruition. How did he achieve it? What made him such a great leader that he was able to transform Apple into one of the most successful tech companies in the world?
One of Steve Jobs’ most spectacular talents was his ability to focus on a clear vision for Apple’s next product. By guiding his team to focus on developing products like the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone — products that dominated their markets — he was able to take Apple on a path to success that would not have been possible without the direction of a leader who could inspire it toward the right outcomes.
One of our greatest assets is time. It’s no secret that in today’s digital world overflowing with social media, emails, text messages and a torrent of other distractions, many of us are seeing time in short supply. But don’t let the assumption that it’s too scarce stop you from taking control of yours.
A good leader knows to maximize time by focusing their attention on the outcomes that matter the most to them. And time mastery extends beyond learning to maximize your own time and into knowing how to teach and guide others to do the same because that’s what truly effective leadership is — helping yourself and others cut through the clutter and focus on the right results, the results that speak directly to the most relevant and most valued objectives.
Finding certainty in uncertain times
Oftentimes, the greater the goal, the more unclear the path to achieving it. That’s why one of the primary qualities that sets the best leaders apart from the rest is their ability to cultivate certainty among their team, even during the most uncertain times.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is a great example of this. After finding substantial financial success working for Bankers Trust and then D.E. Shaw, a hedge fund, Bezos took a calculated risk by quitting in order to start Amazon from his garage. Despite early successes, however, it became apparent that Amazon was going to crash, along with the rest of the tech industry during the 2000-2001 “dot-com bubble.”
How did he overcome this major obstacle and turn Amazon into the massive force that it is today? He cultivated certainty. He believed in the vision he had in his mind’s eye and was able to use that belief to create certainty among his shareholders. His confidence in the company’s future translated to inspiring and empowering persuasion that created a ripple effect of certainty around him, illuminating a path to the future, even in the midst of a seemingly dark and hopeless situation.
No achievement worth making will come without at least a bit of uncertainty. Once you learn to take that uncertainty and flip it into belief and confidence in your vision, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.
Ownership of Purpose
Mastering relationships, time and certainty are essential to being a good leader, but these things are wasted skills if you don’t have a driving purpose behind what you’re doing.
If someone asks you what you do for a living, what do you tell them? Do you call it work, or do you call it a mission?
If it’s work, then it’s probably taking more from you than it’s giving. But if it’s a mission, well, that’s the psychological and spiritual juice life is made of. That’s the juice that will keep you pushing through setbacks, allow you to uplift your team members when you hit challenges and prevent any- and everything from obstructing your view of your ultimate goals. Purpose is the life force of great leaders, and it’s essential to realizing your vision.
In order to be a good leader, you must have a vision. But vision isn’t all about the future.
You have to be able to see things as they currently are before you can move forward in any real way. Leaders with a clear vision have a keen understanding of not only what they want the future to look like, but what the present looks like as well.
That said, remember to see things how they are but not worse than they are. A lot of folks fall into the paralytic trap of thinking that their circumstances are too dire. Culturally, we have a habit of catastrophizing our situations and assuming things are bleaker than they are in reality.
This line of thinking will prevent you from seeing a better future, which is the final leadership skill you must have to be a good leader. Once you see things as they are (but not worse), you then need to see them better than they are so that you have something to move toward.
If you don’t have a compelling view of the future, you’re stuck. With a clear and focused vision of the future, you’re empowered to come up with strategies and concrete plans to make that future your reality.