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Leadership

You Become a Leader by Inspiring Others to Follow

While well-known CEOs make headlines, they're not always people who inspire others to follow them.
Image credit: Caiaimage | Martin Barraud | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Co-founder and CEO of Ridgeline Partners

This past June, when Glassdoor announced the CEOs who topped the charts of its Employees’ Choice Awards, readers were surprised at how few household names made the list.

The top-rated American CEO in 2018? Eric Yuan of Zoom Video Communications. Michael Mahoney of Boston Scientific came in a close second, and DocuSign’s Daniel Springer took third. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg didn’t crack the top 10, nor did Tesla’s Elon Musk or Apple’s Tim Cook.

While well-known CEOs may make headlines, they’re not always people who inspire others to follow them. The truth is, employees look for much more mundane things in a leader than celebrity status.

Related: You Must Lead With Empathy to Achieve These 5 Crucial Leadership Goals

What workers want to see.

Leaders earn the respect of their team not through media appearances or tough-guy antics, but through daily displays of empathy and appreciation. Show that you’re someone worth following by:

1. Hiring people who disagree with you.

What does Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos look for in employees? A rebellious streak, believe it or not. Workplace diversity isn’t just about hiring an equitable number of individuals of a certain gender or ethnicity; it’s about bringing in fresh ideas. Ideological variety is why firms in the top quarter for racial and ethnic diversity are a third more likely to beat their industry’s financial benchmarks.

Consider interviewing applicants yourself, and give them the green light to challenge you. Bring up a situation where you made a controversial choice, but don’t ask, “Do you agree with my decision?” Instead, imply that disagreement is encouraged by asking, “What would you have done differently?” Not only might applicants help you make a better choice next time, but they’ll also appreciate from the start that you’re not just looking for “yes men” on your team.

2. Being open about your faults.

Nobody is good at everything. Leaders who pretend to be may think they’re projecting strength, but they’re actually showing themselves to be inauthentic and dishonest. “The willingness to admit your weaknesses and your vulnerabilities is actually very powerful,” science journalist and emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman explains. “But if you keep it to yourself or worse, are unaware of your faults, then people don’t know what to do. You become the elephant in the room.”

Related: The Strengths and Weaknesses of 4 Distinct Leadership Strategies

There’s no easy way to develop a willingness to present your whole self. Goleman recommends reading Harvard Business School professor Bill George’s book “True North,” which dismantles the myth of the perfect executive. Next, try sharing your weaknesses with a trusted friend, which can help you feel more comfortable doing so with a wider audience. Finally, join your team for a variant of the “fear in a hat” exercise, where workers and leaders share shortcomings for which they worry they’ll be judged. Although the classic game anonymizes fears, you must own your weaknesses in the workplace.

3. Asking questions rather than giving answers.

We’re taught from an early age that answers are what matter. When a teacher calls on us, when we take a skills test, when we interview for a job or when we fill out tax forms, we know there’s a right answer -- and a wrong one. When we move into a leadership role, however, something strange happens: We discover that nobody has all the answers, especially not us.

That’s why French philosopher Voltaire famously suggested that we should judge others not by the answers they give, but by the questions they ask. And after interviewing 525 CEOs, Adam Bryant, former editor at The New York Times, argued “applied curiosity” is one habit successful CEOs share: “They tend to question everything. They want to know how things work, and wonder how they can make things better.” Leaders who pretend to know everything come across as arrogant while missing out on others’ potentially groundbreaking ideas.

4. Shining the spotlight on others.

We all want to be recognized for our work. But for most employees, feeling appreciated is more than a perk. Two in three surveyed employees told Office Team they’d leave their job if they felt unappreciated, up from 51 percent five years earlier. Giving others the limelight creates team cohesion and reminds employees why they do what they do.

Although public awards like "Employee of the Year" can go a long way, the Office Team survey suggests that employees highly value private recognition, too. When respondents were asked to describe the best form of workplace recognition they’d received, answers ranged from “a day off” to “lunch at a private club” to “a handwritten thank-you card from the chief operating officer.”

Related: To Be Successful, Focus on Helping Others

Taking credit for oneself, talking up one’s own strengths and hiring for homogeneity may create the illusion of a successful leader, but the facade inevitably falls away. Workers may be contractually obligated to put in the time, but they’ll never genuinely look up to someone like that. Effective leaders don’t put themselves on a pedestal; they raise the profile -- and, by extension, the productivity -- of the entire team.