7 things the best leaders always do

Dumb comments, great leaders, mere managers, big turnovers, and good habits. Plus 7 other things worth a click.

Early in my career, I spent a few years working as a lawyer for a big federal government agency. My boss had a long, fancy title, but people just called him and his peers “managers.”

One day, that shorthand led me to say something really stupid. My boss didn’t love his work, and I remember he was complaining that he was stuck in no man’s land.

He didn’t get to go to court anymore (which was fun), but he also wasn’t high enough in the organization to have any real say in strategy or policy.

“I'd never want your job," I said without thinking. "Just because they call someone a manager doesn't mean they get to be a leader.”

Man, talk about putting your foot in your mouth. In just two sentences, I managed to insult both my boss and his career.

But I think I was on point, even if I shouldn't have said it.

It’s one thing to move into management. But how many people take the chance to develop into real leaders?

Stable and smooth and seemly

Let’s stay on the idea of leadership. Last week, United Airlines announced that its CEO, Oscar Munoz, will be moving on in May. Company president Scott Kirby will get to the top job.

It’s no surprise that Kirby is being promoted, but it is striking that the transition is so long. I mean, the transition period for the presidency of the entire United States is only about three months, from election day to inauguration.

When I covered this for Inc., I realized it’s one of the few stable, smooth, and seemly leadership transitions I’ve had the chance to write about recently.

Almost everywhere else, there’s drama. There have been 1,160 big company CEO departures so far this year, which is record volume. Rebecca Aydin compiled a good list of turnovers at Business Insider, including:

  • Adam Neumann at WeWork

  • Kevin Burns at Jug

  • Steve Easterbrook at McDonald's

  • Steven Temares at Bed, Bath & Beyond

  • Devin Wenig at eBay

It’s true, they say that the plural of anecdote is not data. But this still seems like a good moment to ask why it seems like there’s been a run on good leadership lately.

'Mere managers'

I told a version of that story about putting my foot in my mouth with my old boss in an article for Inc. about five years ago, and I used it as a jumping off point to talk about key things differences between “great leaders” and “mere managers.”

(In retrospect, describing them as “mere” managers wasn’t very nice either, was it?)

Anyway, they went something like this:

  1. Great leaders connect daily work with big goals. Mere managers focus only on the short-term.

  2. Great leaders think of people as people. Mere managers see titles or organizational charts.

  3. Great leaders hope to earn respect. Mere managers want to be liked.

  4. Great leaders are thrilled when their team members achieve great things. Mere managers can feel threatened.

  5. Great leaders empower people with honesty and transparency. Mere managers parcel out information as if it costs them personally.

  6. A great leader understand that if the team falls short, he or she is responsible. Mere managers find a way to blame the team.

  7. Great leaders care mainly about results. Mere managers are more concerned with process.

Looking at it now, I could tweak a few of these now that I’m older and wiser.

But I think they hold up.

Also, there are elements of truth whether we’re talking about someone leading a small group of employees like the one I worked in at that agency, or leading a Fortune 500 company with tens of thousands of workers.

So, your thoughts? It strikes me this would make good fodder for another Friday comment thread. I’ll set that up for tomorrow’s email.

7 other things worth a click

  1. The United Kingdom has an election today that could finally give us an answer to whether the country will actually leave the European Union. (The Telegraph)

  2. Time's Person of the Year: Greta Thornberg. (Time)

  3. Veterans groups say for-profit colleges that accept the GI Bill need better oversight. (PBS)

  4. Lawyers for at least one alleged victim say they're refusing to go along with Harvey Weinstein's $25 million settlement deal. (CNN)

  5. The German army just got its first military rabbis in 100 years. (Associated Press)

  6. The world's smartest animals, other than primates? Crows, according to a new study. (BBC)

  7. I feel like there's a whole story here, but in 1992 a kid asked Joe Pesci for his autograph, and Pesci asked the kid who his favorite actor was. When the kid said, you, Pesci gave him a $100 bill. Then the kid grew up, became a director, and tweeted about the story: and 750,000 people liked the tweet.

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