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What Does it Take to be a Good Leader?

How do you become a leader? Here, we discuss what leadership is to us and how we view what it means to lead ourselves and others.

What does it mean to be a good leader? Are there qualities a leader has to have? Or do leaders only require someone to follow them? Do you feel like you have what it takes to lead others? 

Maybe you felt like you were really good at your job when you only had to focus on your own tasks. But now, as you've moved forward in your career, you have to work with others and lead teams. It would be so much easier if you could just do everything yourself. Even though you have the skills to operate this way, you just don't have the capacity. You need help. This is why teams are crucial to the success of a business. But without good leadership, it doesn't matter how many people are available to provide help.

During her 30-year career, Michelle Mosolgo held executive level roles in Technology, Human Resources, and Corporate Entrepreneurship. As an executive with a Fortune 50 company, Michelle learned the value of trust, community, and acceptance of vastly different ways of working and thinking as she worked with people across the globe. She's known for discovering the amazing hidden talents in her team and mentored more than 25 successful business leaders.

Ron Macklin realized early in his engineering career that he had a passion for building and leading teams. In his career, Ron went on to lead teams that set nine world records and won dozens of customer satisfaction awards. At Siemens, for example, Ron led a support division with 350 employees that worked over 5 million hours without a lost-time injury and was voted “the best place to work in Houston” by the Houston Business Journal. Twice Ron has created a growth culture responsible for increasing profits by $20 million, and has led seven different groups from worst- to best-in-class. 

In this article, Michelle and Ron discuss how they view leadership and what it means to lead others, so you can begin to show up as a leader in your own life.

What is Leadership?

Michelle Mosolgo: Leadership is an interesting topic. If you talk to 5 people and ask them what leadership is to them, you probably get 10 answers. Ron, how do you hold leadership?

Ron Macklin: Leadership, to me, is an action and a skill. Anything that produces an outcome or interpretation around what's happening is a leadership action or leadership move. And only if there is a follower, is there a leader.

It could all be the same person. I could take action to lead myself. And I could follow myself. I do it all the time. Therefore we have a leader and a follower (and, in this case, it's the same person). But if I take an action and nobody follows me (including myself), there's no leading.

Leadership is also about creating a story
. This story enables you or somebody else to follow. You live a better life by following the story. When you or someone else listens to the story what is understood is, “if I follow that, I'll have a better life.”

Michelle: How do you create that story?

Ron: Well, it would be nice if I could just say I crafted it one time, and it was done. And then I just use that story for a long time. But it's never happened that way. I'm always running experiments on the stories that work on me and the stories that work with others.

And the fundamental behind this is, you can't create a space where you or others get harmed by the story. So you can't be manipulative or tricking, or anything like that. You need to be open, honest, and authentic.

It’s also important to know there's always bumps in the road, or, as we say, we don't get the results we're looking for. Then there's a space where you can say, “Okay, let's try a new story.” Try a different story. Keep trying and creating. And some of the stories work pretty well for a period of time. And if they don't work anymore, it's time to try something new.

What is missing in leadership?

Michelle: What do you think is missing from leadership today? What are the stories that people may or may not have related to leading others?

The first thing that is needed in leadership is being responsible. It means if I'm going to be a leader, I'm going to take responsibility that I'm going to craft a story for myself and others, and I'm going to follow it. If it doesn't work, we're going to go back and look at the story again. Keep going back to your story and keep being responsible. Most people intertwine responsibility and blame. It shows up like "Well, if I'm responsible, then that means they can blame me." Yes, and no. Being responsible means, "I'm going to take responsibility for making sure something happens." It doesn't mean you get it right the first time or even the second time, or the third time. But you're going to be responsible for it. 

What's missing with responsibility is thinking, "Oh, I screwed that one up. I'm no good at this. I can't make it. I can't be a leader." Instead, just keep being responsible and keep going forward.

The second thing is missing is the mechanic of leader-follower. To be a great leader is also to be a great follower.

Being a great follower means you're looking at what stories are being offered and saying, "yeah, I can see how that could work" versus orienting to "I can see how that won't work."

If you are only seeing how something can't work, that's the story you had in your head before you ever heard the person speak. To be a great follower means you create a space where you say, "I see how that could work.” Does that mean it will always work? No. But, if you flat out say it won't work, it really won't work. If you say it will work, it's got a shot at working.

So being a great follower is being able to shape the stories in your head while you're listening to somebody's offer and say, "I think I can see how this could work."

What Does Leadership Look Like at Work?

Michelle: Do you have an example in your career where leadership worked, or it didn't work?

Ron: I'll go with one from my time at Siemens. I came into an organization where basically every 2 years for the last 10-12 years the manager came in and failed and left. They didn't fail to the point where the business collapsed. But the company didn't get what they were wanting from the manager.

When I was brought in, we couldn't fire everybody and then hire new people. We had all these great people to work with. So it was my job to sort out where to find the people that have the gifts and the desires to lead, and are willing to follow in a certain area? 

We ran several experiments with this. In one particular experiment we ran we crafted a narrative for somebody who we occurred to us as somebody who everybody would get along with. Everybody liked him. He was friendly, he knew everybody. He had experience in the business. He had all the technical expertise on how to do the job. He's been out on the field. He's done all the work. So he understood everything about that. We put him into a role to manage the largest group of people in the organization. 

But when we set him up to go into the position, we didn’t realize he never built the skill to lead anybody else to where they wanted to follow him. He had the ability to lead himself, but what I was missing from that was his ability to lead others.

He was a successful project manager and engineer. But he didn’t have stories about how to lead other people. And he didn't have the desire to build them. We didn't know that. We thought everybody wanted to do this job.  But that wasn't right, and that didn't work.

So after about two years of him doing the job, I finally said, okay, this is not working.

It was a great learning experience. I pulled him out of that role, and I had another place for him to go. He was a valuable employee. We didn't want to let him go. It’s just that leading others wasn’t his thing, right?

And then, a week later one of the senior technicians that would report to him walked out to me and said, "what took you so long?"

And I said, "Was that obvious to you?"

"Yeah. Nobody could figure out why you waited so long to do that."

Here I was in a story about how do I help this guy become a leader? How do I work to do that? And everybody else could see that this is not what he wanted to do. They were waiting to see when I was going to make a change.

Clearly, what we did before didn't work. Now, what about the next person we put into that job? We decide we need to have somebody who knows how to lead other people, who cares about other people, who knows what they're doing, and cares about how people are going to follow.

Somebody came to me and said, “What about the finance guy?”

I said, "to manage 120 technicians!?"

He said, "Yes. He's really good with people. He'll know all the names of all the people that work in the business and their kids' names.”

So I went and talked to him about it. He had never managed more than two or three people. But he had this skill to care about people and to help people understand why what they do helps the company perform. Within three months the morale of the organization had shifted so dramatically because people were being led, and they were wanting to follow him.

Now when I look at this story, there's the part about the first person and the second person, and how they could lead or not lead. I go back to how I led myself. I had a position to fill. I put the first person in the leadership role. I didn't treat it like an experiment. I treated it like it was going to work. And that's the story I had in my head. That was really not a very powerful story for that person versus letting them be the follower. I was trying to push them through the leadership process.

When I resigned myself that he didn’t want to do the job, my response wasn’t to throw him out, but to find a place where he could contribute. Then I opened up to the group to say, “What do you guys notice? What do you think is important?” I included all the different thoughts.

And someone suggested the finance guy take over that leadership position. So I turned away from choosing who gets that role to deciding I'm going to follow. My leadership move is to follow the suggestion I’ve been given because he’s got a great view to see what skills would be necessary.

What I notice for myself in these stories is, there's leading as a leader. And that was my role. And there's also following as a leader because that is also how I got the help from everybody else around me. And then enabling other people to lead at the right time in the right moment. This is part of the biggest role that I had as a leader - to know when to let other people lead and when to let other people follow.

This was so different from, "I'm, the leader. I'll tell you what to do. You get it done."

What does leadership mean to you?

What did you learn about leadership? Is there anything Ron and Michelle shared that you want to try out for yourself? Where are you a leader in your life? How do you show up for your followers? Are you creating a space for them to succeed through the stories you tell yourself? Can you think of times where you've been a follower for someone else? How did following help someone else lead? 

We'd love to connect with you about what you are noticing about leadership and how it shows up in your own life. If you are interested in continuing the conversation, you can join us in our online community to access even more content and connect with others. In our community, you can explore articles centered around sharing vulnerable, authentic stories to help you start to create the life you want. You can also access a library of courses and build connections with others who want to change the world one relationship at a time.What does it mean to be a leader? Are there qualities a leader has to have? Or do leaders only require someone to follow them? Do you feel like you have what it takes to lead others?

If you'd like to listen to the full conversation Michelle and Ron had on leadership, you can find it here.