3 traits (in how to think) good leaders have

The past few years have kicked my ass in ‘leadership’ — from Examine almost dying in 2019 to COVID crushing 60% of our revenue — it’s been a whirlwind.

(With that said, Examine’s revenue is up more than 3x from the nadir of 2019, so good progress!)

I recently talked to an employee about the traits I think separate leaders from non-leaders, and I figured it would be helpful to y’all.

First, I want to note that being a non-leader is not bad (if anything, it’s a lot less stressful).

Here are my three things:

1. Think downline (systematic), not immediate.

You need to consider that if you do A, what are the ripples that arise from doing so?

Too many people focus on the immediate outcome without thinking about how it will impact them downline.

A simple example is yelling at your employee — it may get you better results in the immediate, but you’ve likely decreased overall productivity in the long term.

(I invoke a famous axiom of leadership: “people quit bosses”).

2. Comfort with ambiguity.

Humans are built to stress about the unknown, but as a leader, you need to shift through whatever is coming in, separate signal from noise, and derive potential outcomes from the signals you have gleaned.

Think of the three domains of knowledge:

  • Known knowns
  • Known unknowns (get comfortable with this)
  • Unknown unknowns (get comfortable with being punched in the face by this)

This starts entering forecasting territory, but you have to be OK with the future being murky. Employees generally like clear guidance, but it’s on you to make them understand:

  1. It’s not really possible
  2. But here are various outcomes that we predict are likely to happen

A simple business example is resource allocation — let’s say Employee X is working on Project Z for six more months — what will they do after?

Employee X likely prefers to know what is next, but things could change enough that any firm commitment now may be a mistake. It would be best if you parlayed that while still talking about the possible things that are available.

(This also involves them in their future, which generally means higher job satisfaction, and involves them in brainstorming, which means better results).

3. Process over the outcome.

Too many people think it’s the outcome that matters (I mean, of course it does), but the outcome is often dependent on both process and luck.

And unfortunately, people give luck way too much weight (eg: “perfect timing”).

You need to build an intelligent process that gives you the highest probability of success. And as a leader, you need to discern what was just lucky and what was manufactured.

As an example, think of a weighted coin so heads come up 60% of the time.

If you flip the coin, which side is more likely to come up three times in a row? Tails or heads?

Now tails could come up three times in a row (~6.5% probability), but you would be an idiot to pick tails.

Now imagine your business as a set of 100 decisions a day. By having an intelligent process, you push the probability of success from each of those decisions up. Bad luck could still derail you, but a smart process will help insulate you from only the worst luck.

—–

It’s almost akin to approaching things with an engineering mindset.

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