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Aug 25, 2023 1:45:00 PM9 min read

What Makes a Good Leader?

The qualities a good leader demonstrates and what I strive to become.

Over the last six months, our team has been participating in our version of a Book Club for additional training. Our first book? Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin focused on leadership. The principles we covered and discussed throughout the training made me question everything I knew about leadership and what makes a good leader.

I contemplated the question, 'What makes a good leader?' for a long time during (and now after) our training. After some deliberation, I have a short list of the four things that make a good leader and what they do to implement them. A good leader studies and applies the principles of Extreme Ownership, can delegate, can keep their ego in check and is someone worth following. We'll dive into each area and see examples of each at work in the real world.

Extreme Ownership

In the book Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin share their stories and lessons learned from their time in Navy SEALs. These lessons translate to business and other facets of life that emphasize taking complete responsibility. It's a highly eye-opening read and will challenge you and your preconceived ideas on handling situations.

The first principle in Chapter One does a great job of explaining the idea of Extreme Ownership from a high-level view: "There are no excuses. There is no one else to blame. On any team, the leader bears total responsibility for the performance of that team. This applies to everyone, no matter where you are in the rank structure of your organization. We're talking to you. You own it all."

So why is abiding by this concept an essential quality for a leader? First, it eliminates blame from your employees, which can lead to resentment (from the top and bottom). Resentment within an organization or team can be cancerous and bring on many other issues. By taking ownership of problems, leaders can start working on solutions instead of passing the blame onto others.

Extreme Ownership at Work

Say you are trying to hit a deadline on a project. Your supervisor gives you the assignment and expects you to complete the work by a specific date. You do your job and submit the project by the deadline, but when your supervisor reviews it, they find it incomplete and not quite what they were expecting. They blame you for not completing the project correctly, forcing you to redo it, which in turn causes you to miss the deadline.

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon problem in our everyday lives and can be frustrating. You can think of many excuses for not doing the project correctly and resent your supervisor for not giving you the appropriate details.

A good leader would take ownership of this miscommunication and blame themselves. They would apologize for not correctly setting expectations for the project and further explain how to do it. They would also find a solution to ensure they provide those details at the beginning of projects to prevent mistakes in the future and ensure that deadlines aren't missed.

By taking ownership of the situation, this supervisor has maintained a good relationship with their employee by not passing the blame onto them and found a solution to improve the process from now on. An added benefit of this is the employee (whether consciously or subconsciously) has taken notice of this ownership by their supervisor and will start following their example.

When everyone on a team is focused on finding solutions and improving themselves rather than on who to blame, the output of that team will inevitably improve.

Ability to Delegate

Another fundamental quality of a good leader is their ability to delegate to others around them. No one, no matter how skilled or experienced, can do it all alone. And if you're attempting to, you will be bogged down with menial tasks that will start to affect other more critical areas. A good leader will find (or train) others on their team to execute these tasks, freeing up time for the leader to focus on the bigger picture.

Delegation can be a hard thing to put into practice, especially for those leaders who like things to be a certain way. Giving up the control of doing everything yourself and your way is easier said than done. It's easier to say, 'This will only take me 10 minutes to do myself, and it will take an employee 30 minutes to an hour. I'll just do it myself.' That solution might work here and there, but over time, those 10-minute tasks add up to days' worth of time that could be better spent elsewhere. Instead, a good leader would spend 30 minutes to an hour training an employee on how to complete the task. The next time that task comes up, the employee can do it themselves (or with less assistance) and get more efficient each time. Soon, that employee can complete the task in the same 10 minutes their leader could, and the leader hasn't spent any time on it.

This is a challenging route. It takes time, patience and, most of all, trust in your team. But if you don't allow your team to grow and learn, they never will. A leader must be willing to delegate and give them ownership of tasks.

Failing to Delegate 

Picture a manager being the only member of his team that can operate a piece of machinery, tool or software. Each time the task is needed, they must stop what they are doing and run the machine. This seems like a small deal to the manager, but what if they are too busy one week to get to the machine, and the task doesn't get done? The following week they are already behind, inconveniencing the team, so the manager has to delay some of their own work to get the team back on schedule.

This starts a vicious cycle of playing catch-up and disrupting the workflow of the team and the manager, ultimately hurting their product and bottom-line numbers. Instead, the manager could delegate. Invest that initial time into teaching a team member (or members) how to operate the machine and trusting them to handle it when training is complete.

While the initial time commitment to train someone on a given task is often the convenient excuse for not delegating, the underlying motive is usually ego. This leads us to the next essential quality of a leader…

Limit the Ego

The most challenging but essential quality of a leader is humility and being able to check your ego. Ego gets in the way of everything: asking for help, admitting mistakes, delegating, etc.

Jocko and Leif expand on this concept in Chapter 4: Check the Ego. While discussing the principle, they distinguish between when the ego is good and when it clouds our judgment and hinders decisions. Having a healthy ego is essential to driving success. Especially in a creative space, we want to achieve great things, push the boundaries and make a project or design better than the last. We want to win. That drive is healthy and helps push innovation and not fall victim to the status quo.

There is a fine line between striving for the best and believing you are the best. That is where leaders get into trouble. When our personal agendas and ideas become more important than the success of the team is when problems start.

Another important aspect of limiting ego is when dealing with others. Taking ownership of a mistake can disarm a potential clash of egos. If you can check your ego and take the blame for an error, the other person can see the situation without fearing their ego being damaged.

Leif's quote at the end of the chapter sums up this idea perfectly. "Remember, it's not about you. It's not about them. It's about the mission and how best to accomplish it. Your team will dominate with that attitude exemplified in you and your key leaders."

Be Someone Worth Following

This attribute isn't mentioned within Extreme Ownership, but the principles outlined in it point to an overarching theme: be a good person. Or better yet, constantly strive to be a better person. It's a goal that is continually moving and evolving. Strive to be better than you were yesterday and the day before that. 

At the heart of Extreme Ownership is the idea of improving yourself and your thought process to improve your relationships and communication with those around you. This way of thinking is contagious, and you will begin leading by example. It’s vital to be someone your team can admire and model their work behavior after. Take the blame when things go wrong, and give your team credit when things go right.

Leaders I’ve Followed

I've had the privilege of playing on a few good sports teams through high school and college, and the ones that were successful had a few things in common: 1.) great coaches who players love playing for, and 2.) great upperclassmen who embodied the culture of the coach and served as role models for the younger players.

I've had several coaches who I would have run through the proverbial brick wall for: Coach Naig (high school wrestling), Coach Lloyd (high school football) and Coach Clayton (college football). They were tough but fair and always had your back. They were quick to own their mistakes despite their egos and even quicker to give praise. They made you want to play hard and make them proud. 

The culture they had built in their programs and position groups was personified by the senior leaders on those teams, too many to mention here individually. As a young freshman in high school and later in college, they were great examples of what to be and work toward: hardworking, respectful and constantly striving to improve. Like their coach counterparts, these leaders were quick to admit their mistakes on the mat and on the field, even when doing so meant losses for them and, in some instances, the whole team. Seeing them do this made everyone else realize it was right to own up to things. They were also just as encouraging and happy when younger teammates succeeded, putting their own egos aside and being happy for someone else's success.

This small-scale example shows how infectious Extreme Ownership and limiting your ego can be. People take notice, and if you're someone worth following, they will emulate and follow your behavior.

A Constant Battle

Striving to improve and be a good leader is a constant battle with yourself and your ego. The easy road is blaming people for mistakes, doing things yourself, letting your ego run wild and not trying to improve yourself. It's easy because those things take less effort. It's a hard realization that leaders are responsible for every error and mistake. It's hard for a leader to take the time and adequately train and delegate tasks, especially when ego and excessive pride get in the way.

We're all capable of becoming good leaders. It's a skill that can be trained and practiced, and the payoff is excellent. Just like my former coaches watching their players succeed, watching your team win is a feeling that is hard to beat.