Cairn Leadership

Six ways to tell if you're a good leader

Good leaders often don't get feedback

My former boss, Navy CAPT Shaun McAndrew, shared after an interview on our Women Lead Radio show that even five years later, she found it extremely valuable to get feedback on her leadership from a direct report. Too bad it took me five years to give her meaningful feedback!

As leaders, we are often unclear on our performance. Leading without quality feedback can be like driving 100mph with a blindfold on. How do you know if you are leading well? Consider these six ways you might be able to grow as a leader.

1. Results speak for themselves (sometimes)

Unfortunately, even the best metrics only tell a part of the story. You’ve likely seen this for yourself. Managers can drive results even when they don’t lead well. Great employees can get great results despite bad leadership. Worse still, circumstances can produce mediocre results for great leaders or great results for mediocre leaders.

In reality, results matter more in the little things. When you see your people take ownership, take pride, or take initiative, that’s probably due to great leadership. So yes, results can indicate good leadership as long as they happen for the right reasons and persist over time. If you’re honest with yourself you can probably divine whether results happen because of you or despite you.

2. Good leaders can leave

Speaking of time… if you are too vital to your operations to leave for a couple of weeks, to really unplug and appreciate awe, you’re probably not a great leader.

The inability to walk away typically means you don’t trust your people, you have not developed your people, or your people don’t clearly understand your vision. Taking regular unplugged time off demonstrates trust, builds self-reliance for your team, and allows you vital strategic thinking time away from putting out fires at work.

Think you’re ready? Take a long weekend off. It may feel like jumping into an icy pool of uncertainty at first, but usually, your people will pleasantly surprise you.

3. Pay attention to nuance

In the US Marine Corps, officers know they have led well when their Marines refer to them as MY captain instead of THE captain. What would this nuance be for you? Perhaps ‘our CEO’ instead of ‘the boss?’ When people speak about you in a bar after work or on a lunch break, does their tone include respect and excitement, or a verbal eye roll?

What’s the best way to get this data? Admiral Rickover would famously sit in a submarine workspace with his Sailors for at least two hours to get real information. Try it! After two hours of just sitting and listening, your people will no doubt say the most amazing (and truthful) things.

4. Your people ask great questions

If your people ask you a lot of simple questions they could have easily looked up answers to, they probably like you more than they respect you (and your time).

If they never ask you questions, you are not pushing them to grow. No questions could also mean your people fear you or don’t think you will have worthwhile answers.

When people ask tough questions at critical times, you are in your sweet spot. This means they value your input, respect your time, and feel empowered to figure the small stuff out on their own. You are likely well on your way to helping your people find flow at work!

5. Ask for feedback on your performance

Your people don’t have the time or desire to stroke your ego and certainly don’t want to risk their careers by giving you unwelcome constructive feedback. Asking them straight out “Am I doing a good job?” will not work.
Instead, take some time to craft the right question. Consider questions that are specific, non-threatening, and don’t offer easy outs.

Pro tip: Great leadership coaching questions usually begin with ‘what.’

What could be better here?
What holds you back from doing your best here?
Would you prefer that I lead this way or that way?
What makes my communication unclear?

Bonus: Ask twice and get awkward

Few people answer with the whole truth upfront when asked a tough question. If you ask one more time, it gets awkward, and answers start to surface.

More than once, I have had people confide in suicidal ideations after asking ‘No really, how are you?’ Usually, people offer a canned response and need some time to think. Leaders often walk away satisfied with only the typical ‘fine.’ Take 10 extra seconds to ask again. Demonstrating this kind of care and respect could not only save a life, it will almost certainly get you better answers.

6. Phone a friend

Admiral Stavridis recently gave great advice in a webinar about leading in a crisis. Identify mentors and peers and formally ask them for a professional relationship. Having a trusted peer to call, blow off steam, and ask for a reality check is essential for great leadership. Mentors can be even better. Who are your mentors?

Another option is to hire a leadership coach to exponentially accelerate your progress. When you can reflect with a deep listener, get unfiltered hard feedback, and have someone at your beck and call to give your actions and thoughts a sniff check, you can get vital feedback immediately- a precursor to flow and growth. This is why all our Adventures come with certified leadership coaching.

Above all, have faith in yourself

No one wants to follow a self-doubter. Any time you spend wondering if you’re doing a good job is precious time wasted in which you could have done a good job. Great leadership is usually thankless – get over it!

Define your values. Define the actions and principles you want to build your leadership on. Follow through on both. It’s a simple yet incredibly strenuous journey. Stop waiting for the tough part to be over, and cherish the process instead.

Faith is doing what is asked despite our doubts. Great leaders will tell you they did not have all the answers when they made that pivotal decision. They did not know exactly what was needed to inspire greatness in others during dark times. These men and women had an executive presence: a clear idea of the character they wanted to embody, a fuzzy idea of where they needed to go, and faith in themselves to drive forward despite misgivings, nagging doubts, and discomfort.

Instead of worrying about your performance, take time to listen, ask the right questions, identify people you trust to give unfiltered feedback, and focus on developing yourself to better serve your people!