The Secret of Great Leadership

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The secret of great leadership is that there is no secret.

There are books and articles and TED Talks that tell you the one thing that will make you a great leader. Often the one thing is based on one person’s successful leadership in one situation. Sometimes the one thing wears today’s trendy prefix, “neuro.” But there is no magic fix, no magic incantation, no secret handshake, no piece of technology, and no special sauce that will let you skip the basics of great leadership.

In a way those basics are a different kind of secret. You won’t hear much about them because they’re not new or cutting edge. The only thing they do is work and if you aspire to great leadership, you must learn how to make them work for you. Here are just four.

The “Secret” of Intrinsic Motivation

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have been studying motivation for more than 40 years. They identified three things that drive intrinsic motivation.

There’s autonomy. People want the maximum control possible over their work life. There’s relatedness. People want to enjoy the people that they work with. They want to be part of a winning team. There’s competence. People want to do interesting, meaningful, and challenging work and get better at it.

For thirty-plus years I did a class exercise where people identified a time when it was great to come to work. Then we worked out a group description of the working environment. The people in my classes used different words, but they always described a time when they experienced Deci and Ryan’s three things.

If you create a working environment where people have autonomy, relatedness, and competence, you’ll have a powerful, self-motivated team.

The “Secret” of the Situation

All leadership is situational. What’s appropriate for one place, and time, and challenge, is not appropriate for all. If you aspire to be a great leader, you need to adapt to the situation and do what’s required to accomplish the mission and care for the team members.

It’s especially important to keep this in mind when stories of heroic leaders are told as examples of what every leader should be. Boris Groysberg’s research into leadership portability ought to be a caution that success in one arena does not necessarily translate to another.

Remember that we don’t get an accurate picture of what it was like for the leader being lauded. Because they succeeded there’s a tendency to overlook the adjustments and fears and glitches along the way and see the outcome as the result of something the leader was instead of something that he or she did.

The “Secret” Of Control

We talk a lot about leaders having control, but the fact is that if you’re a leader, you don’t have much. The people on your team can ignore you if they’re willing to take whatever sanctions you or your organization deliver. They can do what they want if they’re willing to bear the consequences.

The truth is, that when you when you become responsible for the performance of a group, your control goes down, not up, because you will be evaluated based on the performance of the group of people all of whom will make their own choices about how well and how hard to work. What does go up for you is influence. Because you are “the boss,” other team members will observe you for clues about how to act.

The way that you exercise influence is through your behavior. What you say and what you do are the only things that you control, but they’re enough.

The “Secret” of No Secret

You will not become a great leader all at once. You must develop and grow into it. No book or class or TED Talk or magic incantation will suddenly make you great. You’ve got to work at it. And you’ll make the most progress if you work at it every day and if you regularly reflect on how you’re doing.

Bottom Line

We know what it takes. If you pay attention to what science tells us about intrinsic motivation and you adapt to your situation and you use your behavior to influence the behavior of others and you get a little bit better every day, you’ve got a shot at becoming a great leader. That’s it. No secrets and no shortcuts.

My e-book, Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time will help you make a little progress every day.

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