People following a leader on a hill at sunset

Why are Great Leaders Unique?

The Original Intention

Great people leaders are hard to find and even harder to codify. But, every leader deserves to be positioned and equipped to be great. 

So, why are great leaders unique? What are the characteristics demonstrated by people leaders who perform at high levels that result in their team actually want to follow them?

When we all set out to be people leaders, we had the aspiration to be great. We wanted to make an impact on people. We wanted to raise ceilings and push out walls because that’s what great leaders do. We hit it head-on with the intent to change the world, but quickly found out we’re not judged by our intentions but by our actions. 

The major life impact we thought we’d see right away, quickly turned into us realizing that leading people and leading teams to deliver business results is hard. Research shows that 60% of first-time people leaders fail within the first 18 months. Failure doesn’t mean they’re no longer a people leader. Failure can mean they didn’t achieve those aspirations and somewhere along the way settled into just being an average to good people leader.

Leading People Over Time

Gallup validated all of this and their decades of research on people leaders. According to their American Manager study, people leader disengagement is estimated to cost the US economy $319-$398 billion annually. 

Yes, you read that correctly. Billions. ANNUALLY. This indicates that most people leaders feel they don’t have what they need to be great. 

Gallup also found that only 18% of current people leaders have the talent required for their role. That means 82% don’t. It also validates that the pursuit of leading people isn’t for everyone. 

So, what do great people leaders do consistently that differentiates them from good to average people leaders?

Gallup identified five actions great people leaders take that we can all apply and replicate. These are actions we can invest intentionally in driving from our role as the team leader. These are proven and time-tested. All you need is some resilience and courage to run after them.

Why are Great Leaders Unique?

#1 — They motivate their employees

Great people leaders work to bring out the best in those on their team and create an environment where people feel safe to bring out their best selves every day. There are many ways and techniques to motivate your team. One of the most powerful is to intentionally position your team to work from their strengths.

Marcus Buckingham redefines the traditional definition of strengths from just “something we’re good at” to “an activity that strengthens you.” If strength is “an activity that strengthens you” then weakness isn’t just “something you’re bad at”. According to Buckingham, a weakness is actually “an activity that weakens you even if you’re good at it.”  This streamlined definition of strengths and weaknesses is key for managers to know how to best motivate their employees. 

“A strength is an activity that strengthens you and a weakness is an activity that weakens you even if you’re good at it.”

Follow the research and you’ll see the connection between strengths-based work and engagement. It’s something you cannot deny unlocks the people on your team. 

When we work from our strengths, we feel energized and wake up actually motivated to do work and tackle the day. The opposite is also true. When we spend most of our time working from our weaknesses or doing work that drains us, it impacts our motivation, engagement, and work quality.

If you want to motivate your team, as great people leaders do, then focus on discovering the strengths of your team members and allocate work that gets them working from their strengths as much as possible. Generally, a good target is a 70/30 ratio. Focus on your people spending 70% of their time working from their strengths and 30% just getting the other work that needs to be done.  

#2 — They assert themselves to overcome obstacles

Great people leaders walk into the chaos, drama, and roadblocks that keep their teams from achieving their business results. They assert themselves and do the work needed to remove obstacles. 

Bad people leaders abdicate and throw up their hands and say, “That’s just the way it’s done around here” or “That’s not really my job.” If you want to be great, then lean into the challenging and hard parts of being a people leader.

If you want to know more about the obstacles, ask your team. They know. They can help you see the roadblocks they run into and can help you understand actions you can take to help them overcome those obstacles. They need you, their leader, to do this for them.

#3 — They create a culture of accountability

A leader always gets two results: What they create and what they allow. That means we need to be intentional to allow the right things and do our work to create the type of culture that will allow our teams to thrive. Creating a culture of accountability is something great people leaders do. That means it won’t happen without the leader proactively engaging in creating process. It won’t happen by accident.

Accountability starts with expectations. If you want to create a culture of accountability, then start by being clear on expectations with your team. If they’re unclear, there will often be a gap between your expectations and experience. That gap pushes accountability in the wrong direction. Start by ensuring your team is clear on expectations. From there, you can drive the accountability conversations in a healthy direction and lay the building blocks for a culture of accountability.

#4 — They build trusting relationships

Trust is at the core of a great team and what great people leaders cultivate. Without trust, you’ll struggle to be a great leader. Without trust, you’ll struggle to get your team to follow you and deliver your business results. Trust is the starting point.

It’s a central leadership strategy. If you cultivate it, it will allow you to go further faster. But if the trust bank account is empty, you’ll move slower than when you began as a people leader.

To learn more about how to build trusting relationships, check out The DNA of High-Performing Teams article.

#5 — They make informed, unbiased decisions for the good of their team and company

Leaders make decisions all the time. It’s part of the job. How do you make your decisions? What informs your decisions?Those are important questions to answer and it’s important to have a system for how decisions are made. What data do you use to inform decisions? What insights do you draw from this data? How do you engage your team or trusted advisors to help with decision-making? 

Great people leaders make great decisions, but they don’t do them in isolation. Abstraction and isolation are kryptonite for a leader and can lead to making bad decisions.

Commit to GREAT Leadership

Five actions. Think of these as a guide to help you start thinking through what actions YOU can take to build into your personal leadership approach. Try it out. Experiment. Don’t quit if you fail the first time. Keep going and you’ll reap the benefits over time. You’ll start to see your team’s impact and results skyrocket. It’s well worth your investment and will make you go from that average to the good leader to that great and stand-out kind of leader you aspired to be from the beginning. 

Connect with us to learn more about how Wildsparq helps organizations implement a leader development strategy.