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6 Ways to Become a Better Leader How to prepare for the duel roles that come with being a leader: managing people and ideas.


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By Nilofer Merchant

Choice is an important concept in business. And it's difficult. Often people are more comfortable generating ideas than winnowing them down to "the one" that meets the need. Our culture supports idea generation, mulling it over, subtracting one thing, adding two more. We've all experienced it -- an endless trail that perpetuates itself whenever the team unearths a glittering gem and slows the decision-making process to a crawl.

When you show up to lead, choices aren't personal. Choices can be ethical. They can be financial. They can be strategic and have ramifications for the company that will resonate for years. Choices can also be confusing -- all directions are valuable, but as a leader, you're looking for the single best one. If you want to be a better leader, you must make six choices.

1. Keep Searching

Stay open and don't rush to conclusions. This is difficult when we feel we have to have the "right" answer. But the right answer can mean many things. If you've ever watched a hawk hunt, you've seen them circle the same area several times. They check and check and check again. They may even ride the thermal into a slightly different area for a new viewpoint. Even when they decide to strike, they're still adjusting all the way to their prey.

Maintaining an open viewpoint means there is room to seek information from others. You can do research, learn more, and gather details that would otherwise elude you. In this process, you'll even be able to tap into previously unknown information.

2. Know Your Strengths

Strengths are gifts. If your particular ability is quantitative research, know how and where that can best be applied for optimal results. Work at growing your gifts and refining them. It doesn't matter what you don't have, focus on what you do have and grow it. You can definitely work to minimize shortcomings, but by placing your emphasis on your gifts, you'll be doing your absolute best.

This is an opportunity to truly be yourself -- not the other guy. And whether you're a cheerleader or someone who likes to think deep thoughts alone, you have something of value to offer. Give yourself permission to be your best self -- whatever that is.

3. Be Present And Participate

Work is not a spectator sport. Whether you're in a meeting, talking with a team member, or in a 1-on-1 meeting, you're there for a reason. You have something to add to the mix.

Make sure you participate and interact. It's important to discuss your viewpoint, provide your questions, and share your take on things. This isn't tennis -- spectators are superfluous.

It used to be that meetings involved higher-ups talking at people who would carry out orders. But today we recognize that everyone in the organization brings valuable knowledge with them. It means we're all contributors. We can avoid problems early on by sharing knowledge. We avoid mistakes because everyone bakes something into the project. This is some of the best insurance an organization can ever have -- the collective intelligence of a business unit or small group.

No one will remember the number of times you fail -- they're all too busy thinking of themselves. Get busy with an idea, learning something new, or trying an experiment. Then share what you have, whether it works or not. What fails in one situation may be recycled into a new scenario and be just the right solution.

4. Engage And Move Toward Others

Real leadership doesn't mean that you're leading the pack. It means you engage the pack, make people think, and get them involved.

How does it feel to sit in a meeting with someone who tends his or her notes, sits back, and looks at the corner of the ceiling? It's not fun to work with people who are blasé or out of touch. You can tell a lot about someone's commitment to a project by looking at how they sit in their chair. If they're leaning back, not contributing and they look as if they'd like to lunge for the door, they're not sharing what they've got with the team.

Your contributions and engagement make the team stronger and more capable. Leaders get everyone involved. They're interested in building a stronger team and getting themselves stronger. Much of success resides in your willingness to participate with others, which is itself a risk. We all have something to offer -- get that quiet person to provide the group with their thoughts and stop hiding behind note taking or incessant talking. What you want is thoughtful participation that drives the group toward good choices. That means take action. Get the ideas on the table, review, select, and move forward.

5. Train Yourself To Hold Opposing Views

If you were on the debate team in school, you probably already know the value of being able to see multiple sides of an argument. You practiced taking the side you liked and felt was "right," and voicing what might have been foreign to you so that you'd know how to fend off the arguments of the opposition.

The value of holding opposing views at the same time is that strategy isn't simple. Winning and losing are black and white. Strategy more often contains multiple shades of gray. These are predicaments. They're subtle and not simple. Sometimes even rational approaches won't work with predicaments.

Look at two things that appear to be opposites. Could both be true? If you stepped into another person's way of thinking, culture, belief system, knowledge base -- could both be true? If you have one alternative, how many others can you think of? What additional options might work?

By developing an appreciation for others' points of view, we maintain our ability to see a broader number of alternatives and discuss them, even when we disagree.

6. Get Back Up Every Time

Steve Jobs, who many find to be an exemplary CEO by several different measures, was fired from Apple, the company he founded. Carly Fiorina was booted off the board and out of the C-suite at Hewlett-Packard. Bruce Springsteen's first album never made the charts. Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times before inventing the light bulb. Marilyn Monroe was fired by 20th Century Fox because executives thought she was unattractive.

Each of the men and women noted above reinvented themselves and went on to new success. Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest boxer of all time, won the middleweight championship belt an unprecedented five times because he kept getting back up.

Tenacity is the hallmark of great strategists -- they always find other ways to resolve the predicament.

Strategy is action-oriented. Strategists who lead choose to be curious, understand their gifts, be present, look at both sides of the equation, and keep getting back up.

Nilofer Merchant, CEO of Rubicon Consulting, is a global high-tech industry thought leader and trusted strategic adviser for companies such as Adobe, Symantec, and VMware. She publishes and speaks frequently on strategy, innovation, and leadership.

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