Be Unnecessary (And Two More Tricky Leadership Principles)

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I’ve been reading, learning, and writing a good deal about leadership over the past two years. It’s one of my favorite topics because the applications expand far beyond your business career into your personal relationships, family, and more. Regardless of whether you’re in an official leadership position within an organization, you’ll benefit greatly from developing leadership skills.

In my mind, one of the best ways to learn about leadership is to read, absorb, and apply lessons from the greats. I wanted to distill some of the more counterintuitive principles I’ve picked up from reading books like The Score Takes Care of Itself, Extreme Ownership, and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

  1. Be a leader, not an achiever.
  2. Make yourself unnecessary.
  3. Take all the blame.

Here’s more about those leadership principles and how they specifically apply.

Be a leader, not an achiever.

Leaders are often put into those positions because they were high performers in a lower position. CTOs likely moved up the ranks from software developer to project lead and beyond. Sales managers previously were in the dugout making calls, meeting clients, and signing big deals.

The issue (as Marshal Goldsmith’s book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There alludes to) is that the skills necessary to be successful in an individual contributor role are different than those required to be successful in a leadership role. Whereas your role previously was about winning yourself, it’s now about team success. There’s a difference between being an achiever versus being a leader:

“…there’s a difference between being an achiever and a leader. Successful people become great leaders when they learn to shift the focus from themselves to others.”

When you move into a leadership position, your approach needs to shift from accepting accolades yourself to putting your people in a position to be recognized. One more from Goldsmith:

“…the higher up you go in an organization, the more you need to make other people winners and not make it about winning yourself.”

This can be very difficult because it underlies a separate principle – the best leadership is often invisible.

As a leader within an organization, your day should be comprised of having individual conversations with your teammates, setting the direction for your team, providing feedback, and advocating for your teammates in other areas. When opportunities come along, your thought process should be “How do I line up __ for that position?” In every one-on-one conversation, you should be thinking about how you can maximize your teammate’s skills and attributes in a way that would benefit the company and their career overall.

Pulled together, this means that success as a leader is a mirror image of success for your teammates. Success looks like your people getting promoted. It looks like them successfully leading projects and crushing new initiatives. It’s not about taking credit for their achievements; that’s the last thing you want to do. Instead, it’s about flipping your perspective so success is no longer about your achievements; it’s about supporting those around you.

Make yourself unnecessary.

I pulled this principle directly from Bill Walsh in The Score Takes Care of Itself:

“The trademark of a well-led organization in sports or business is that it’s virtually self-sustaining and self-directed—almost autonomous…if your staff doesn’t seem fully mobilized and energized until you enter the room, if they require your presence to carry on at the level of effort and excellence you have tried to install, your leadership has not percolated down.”

If you’re in a leadership position, it’s easy to imagine yourself as a linchpin holding the organization together. If you failed to show up for work for a week, no one would have any idea what to do. They couldn’t possibly manage to get along, and the whole organization would fall to pieces.

If that is indeed true, if your team or organization would fall to pieces the moment you stepped away, that’s a failure on your part.

As Walsh states, good leaders create self-sustaining organizations wherein the organization is nearly autonomous. It’s a car on cruise control on a straight road. Your job is to observe and make minor tweaks when necessary. Yes, there are definitely counterexamples, periods of great change in an organization for example, but if you’re doing your job well, you won’t be 100% necessary 100% of the time. In many cases, I think this delusion is brought on by the specific leader (an intense desire to feel necessary) than the actual team.

How do you build that kind of culture?

First, create what Walsh refers to as a “Standard of Performance.” Walsh lays out six steps for doing just that:

  1. “Start with a comprehensive recognition of, reverence for, and identification of the specific actions and attitudes relevant to your team’s performance and production.”
  2. “Be clarion clear in communicating your expectation of high effort and execution of your Standard of Performance. Like water, many decent individuals will seek lower ground if left to their own inclinations.”
  3. “Let all know that you expect them to possess the highest level of expertise in their area of responsibility.”
  4. “Beyond standards and methodology, teach your beliefs, values, and philosophy.”
  5. “Teach ‘connection and extension.’ An organization filled with individuals who are “independent contractors” unattached to one another is a team with little interior cohesion and strength.”
  6. “Make the expectations and metrics of competence that you demand in action and attitudes from personnel the new reality of your organization.”

In short, clearly lay out the expectations for your team. Create your own standard of performance for how the team should operate.

Second, lean on what Walsh refers to as “interior leaders.”

…organizations have leaders within, not just one leader, the CEO or head coach, but interior leaders who make possible or prevent what the guy in charge is trying to accomplish.

I harbor a suspicion that everyone on your team is actually an interior leader in some capacity. Regardless, find the interior leaders on your team and lean on them to further model the standard of performance and mentor others.

Take all the blame.

Former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin wrote extensively about this concept in their book Extreme Ownership. The core concept boils down to this:

Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.

This concept applies across the organization, but it applies specifically when something goes wrong.

“If someone isn’t doing what you want or need them to do, look in the mirror first and determine what you can do to better enable this.”

If someone didn’t show up for their shift on time, it’s up to you to figure out why, reinforce your standard of performance, and offer assistance to avoid this happening again in the future.

If a team member delivers a lackluster performance, sit with them one-on-one. Find out where you could have helped out more along the way. Perhaps you could have made the desired outcomes clearer from the very start.

When you’re leading a team, accepting blame feels very vulnerable. It can feel like you have the most to lose. You need to overcome this fear and accept blame by default. Exhibit “extreme ownership,” take the blame, and figure out how you can do better next time. To bring back Marshall Goldsmith for a moment, this default of accepting blame will percolate down to your team:

“A leader who cannot shoulder the blame is not someone we will follow blindly into battle. We instinctively question that individual’s character, dependability, and loyalty to us. And so we hold back on our loyalty to him or her.”

In practice, this concept is two-fold: Giveaway credit. Take blame.

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