The Ten “Little Ways” of Great Leadership

“We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference,
ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time,
add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”
– Marian Wright Edelman

The leadership-development craze has only grown stronger with the 1990’s preoccupation with the “celebrity CEO.” “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, Jack Welch, Carly Fiorina – everyone wanted their own, charismatic, hot-shot figurehead at the helm. And many more aspiring executives with top-floor, corner-office ambitions wanted to be a celebrity honcho.

But the Superman CEO façades created by P.R. spin-masters inevitably crumbled, particularly in the face of the more recent wave of executive malfeasance that sullied the leadership class and cast a shadow of doubt over even the most ethical leaders. With such missteps finding their fuel in discernment-free ambition and unbridled greed, perhaps it’s time to return to real-deal leadership characteristics instead of settling for glitzy cheap-foil wrappers and the high costs of their peeling away.

True leaders, whether in the Oval Office or ground-floor reception desk, have cultivated and demonstrated adeptness in the “little ways” of leadership that long outlast the flashier, often ego-serving celebrity urges. Just as most discerning people know when they’re being sold a bill of goods, most also know when they’re in the presence of a real leader, real excellence, real mastery. And often, what makes the difference is a series of small things rather than the one, over-the-top persona favored by big-media. After all, while the latter may be a shiny figure-head who substitutes for royalty in a kingless land, it’s the former who gets the real work done, and any real progress made. And such “little work” is what yields truer, deeper results large and small.

What are some of the “little ways” in which true leaders strive for mastery? They strive to master the building-blocks of their areas of responsibility; they do the many small things with attentiveness; they attend to the ordinary details in an extraordinary way. With their thoughtfulness, mindfulness, respectfulness, and skillfulness, they inspire the more discerning individuals around them to higher levels of behavior, and plant the seeds of something greater in those who are not quite ready to take a quantum leap.

How does this skillfulness show itself? In many ways, with the end result being that people always feel better, more challenged to be their best selves, after having interacted with these leaders.

Though the list of attributes may be longer, here are a few key traits that true leaders demonstrate, regardless of whether their leadership role is formally recognized or not. In other words, these are traits they cultivate and demonstrate as a matter of choice, not title or job role. Leaders who are effective in the “little ways” strive for the following in their interactions and their work:

  • They’re present. Leaders pay attention to what they’re doing at the moment, or to whom they’re speaking at the moment. Unlike those folks who are clearly “somewhere else” when you’re talking with them, you don’t feel unseen, unrecognized, or unheard in their presence.
  • They listen. Because they’re present and paying attention, leaders don’t just remember talking with you, they remember what you said. After talking with them, you don’t think to yourself, “Gee, I may have just as well spoken to the wall.”
  • They speak mindfully. Leaders are conscious that their words have an effect on others, so they speak consciously. Unlike the stories of the unfortunate buffoons who scream and yell at executive meetings, making people cower, leaders don’t need to rely on such antics.
  • They encourage. Leaders, being grounded and secure in themselves, find it easier to be encouraging of others. They encourage others to take risks, to pick themselves up after making mistakes, to take their skills to the next level, to pursue their dreams. As the word ‘encourage’ suggests, they help others to find their own courage – to take heart.
  • They’re honest. Real leaders strive to “know themselves,” so that they have the inner resources to speak, live and lead honestly. They don’t say one thing in public, while doing something more sinister and self-serving in private. They don’t have to make excuses about poor behavior “being legal;” if it’s unethical, they’ll find another way to do it.
  • They’re humble. “Little way” adepts know that arrogance is dangerous as well as disrespectful. They know, too, that while the short-term benefits may appear great, the long-term costs of arrogance are high. Great leaders have always shown great humility, which allows them to cultivate the “little way” leadership traits that truly serve themselves and others.
  • They persevere. Leaders of the “little way” know that if they take risks, they risk failure. But this is all in a day’s work. They know that failures and difficulties are not ends, but simply doors to pass through on the way to greater wisdom and skillfulness. Even though they may get temporarily dejected, they persevere.
  • They’re courageous. Leaders know that everyone, themselves included, feels fearful at times. They don’t, however, let their fears and uncertainties stop them from persevering, from pursuing their dreams, from building their skillfulness, or from speaking honestly. “Little way” leaders may get hit in the head with a piece of coal, only to stand up and recognize the diamond hiding within it.
  • They’re thoughtful. Leaders have the presence of mind to recognize others, whether when saying ‘hello’ during the day, or paying a compliment for work well done. Being thoughtful of others, leaders are on time for meetings, are conscious of using time well, are organized, follow through on promises, and close the loop on communications. In addition to thoughtfulness to others, they’re also discerning about their own path, their own thoughts, and their own actions.
  • They’re respectful. Leaders who are adept in the “little ways” treat others respectfully, and require that others are respectful in return. A “little way” leader does not tolerate being spoken to or otherwise treated in a disrespectful manner.

These are just some of the “little ways” – the building blocks – that allow true leadership to develop and emerge. No matter where you are in the organizational hierarchy, or whether you’re at work or working at home, you can develop competency in the “little ways” of leaders. Your reward? A sense of purpose, confidence and meaningfulness no one else can give you, and no one can take away from you. Better yet, the rewards of “little way” leadership get passed along with every interaction you have throughout the day.