The question “What’s the one tip you would give aspiring leaders?” isn’t just a bad question, it’s fundamentally the wrong way to think about leadership.
In the hundreds of media appearances I’ve done since my book came out I’ve often been asked questions such as, “What’s the most important skill someone needs to be a leader?” Wanting to be a good guest, I used to try to come up with an answer, even though I didn’t like the question. Often, I would pick a few things since it’s not just one thing, but over time I realized that’s not the response I should give. The question itself belies the wrong approach to leadership.
Leadership is complex.
Quite simply, leadership is not atomic. It’s not a single thing. There’s no one universal rule that applies to everyone, no one skill that separates the good from the great, or even the good from the bad. Effective leadership is a holistic combination of many skills.
Consider a sport like basketball. We could ask, “What’s the one thing someone can do to become a better basketball player?” Getting better at shooting certainly helps. But lay-ups are different from shooting three pointers, which are different from free throws. You could get better at rebounding. Of course, there’s dribbling, which is fundamental, as is passing. We haven’t yet talked about defense. Fundamental physical capabilities like raw speed matters as does overall endurance. Then there’s court sense, having a feel for the situation on the court and knowing what to do.
Shaquille O'Neal was famously bad at free throws, but a great defender and rebounder. Charles Barkley had a poor rating as a defender but was a top scorer. If you look at the top ten basketball players, you’ll see they aren’t equally strong in each skill used on the court. Switch to another sport like baseball and you get apples and oranges. Pitchers, short stops, and designated hitters are all extremely different in their skill mix because the baseball they play, the one specific to their position, differs. From one company to the next, even one situation to the next, a mix of different leadership attributes might be better suited to the challenge.
Effective leadership is a holistic combination of many skills.
When we ask, “What’s the best tip for being a great leader?” or “The best skill for leaders to have?” the question itself oversimplifies the challenge to the point of giving us the wrong model for thinking about leadership. There are many things that can make a great leader. Great leaders need to think critically, problem solve, communicate, listen, empathize, inspire, organize, envision, motivate, foster relationships, take initiative, and so much more. Which one is the “best” or provides the best ROI for development will vary depending on the person (and the situations she or he will face).
It could be argued, however, that there is one fundamental thing someone can do to be a better leader. It’s the same thing someone can do to be a better athlete, a better parent, or better at just about anything. Focus on constant improvement. Many people have reached number one in their sport; the ones who stay there do so because they don’t take it for granted. They continue to compete to get even better, even if that competition is only against their former self. Good leaders also know that their leadership training doesn’t end at a title or even a career milestone success. It continues for as long as they want to be a leader.
In today’s world of short sound bites and TikTok videos it’s easy to want to cut through the noise and get to the key takeaway. I commend the desire for efficiency. But the one key tip to being a great leader is as meaningful as the one key tip to being a great parent. The same is true for being a great communicator, a great manager, a great teammate, and similar skills. It’s not one thing. To think that it is, implied by the question itself, is to invite a misunderstanding.
The world is complex. Leadership is complex. The skills to make you a great leader are complex as is the real time dynamic mixing of them in real world application. I’m sorry to tell you that there is no simple answer, but it needs to be said. Asking the right question is the critical first step to solving any problem, including how to be a better leader.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.