In this guide we will give an overview of what research into influential leaders has revealed, and what we can learn from the likes of Airbnb, Jack Dorsey, Richard Branson and others.
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Unfortunately, there’s no perfect combination involving equal parts confidence, patience, intelligence, strategic thinking and other desirable qualities to produce shining individuals to lead us forward, which is why we’ve been so focussed on studying successful leaders to find out how they tick.
So much research has been done around this subject of leadership that you can almost pick and choose what you want to believe in. For example, research from Timothy Judge, a professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, found that extroversion and conscientiousness are two of the most common traits found in successful leaders. But other research suggests that ‘extroverts and introverts were equally successful in leadership roles overall, and that introverts, in certain situations, actually make better bosses.’
The common assumption is that extroverts make for better leaders because they are generally more assertive, but research has shown that it may not be as simple as this: while extroverted leaders encouraged success in workplaces where the employees were generally passive (looking to be led), extroverted leaders did not have the same success with proactive employees (those who self-start and voice suggestions). Extroverted bosses could stifle the initiative of active workers, leaving them feeling discouraged or reluctant to share their own ideas in the future. This is where the introvert could be an asset: in fact, some of the most influential figures in modern business like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page are introverts, and they’re all billionaires many times over.
Other theories also like to divide people up into two camps – a sort of us-v-them mentality. Famous author and speaker Michael Hyatt believes that there are two kinds of people: abundance thinkers and scarcity thinkers. Abundance thinkers are generous, welcome competition, share knowledge and ‘believe there is always more where that came from,’ writes Hyatt. Scarcity thinkers favour the opposite: they are pessimistic, stingy with their knowledge and resent competition. Only abundance thinkers make successful leaders.
More recently, a 10-year study of US business executives by consulting company Navalent concludes that the ‘make-it-or-break-it attribute’ found in successful leaders is the ability to build solid, trusting relationships (in addition to ‘keen business sense,’ ‘industry knowledge,’ and ‘good decision-making instincts’, which the study also identifies as important).
So, based on this tiny fraction of research, successful leaders are:
Or, some complicated combination of all of the above. This just proves the point that leaders come in all shapes, sizes, personalities and temperaments, which is why they are so endlessly interesting to study.
We are fascinated by success stories, and we want to figure out exactly how they work: what does Bill Gates eat for breakfast? How many hours of sleep does Richard Branson get every night? Who does Mark Zuckerberg admire?
Below are 5 examples of ground-breaking companies and world-famous leaders, and 5 pieces of wisdom to learn from them.
Encourage creativity and individual expression like Google
Google has achieved a ‘Holy Grail’ status as the cool, forward-thinking company model all tech startups dream of. One of the most famous perks about working at Google was their ’20 percent time’ rule, where employees could spend 20 percent of their time – effectively 1 working day per week – working on relevant side projects (Gmail and Google News are the direct result of this initiative).
While many have heralded the 20 percent rule as dead (despite recent news that it’s been brought back to help solve issues around diversity in the workforce), there is something to be said for giving your employees a certain degree of creative freedom. Passionate, enthusiastic workers are productive ones, and encouraging them to pursue their own ideas can yield significant results. It doesn’t have to be a full day – it can be one afternoon a week or 30 minutes each morning.
Build a ritual like Jack Dorsey
Tech billionaire or not, stress is something all of us deal with. As a leader – who is often under lots of pressure – it’s important to maintain your stress levels (and thereby maintaining your physical and mental health). ‘I think generally stress comes from things that are unexpected,’ said Twitter’s co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey in a Forbes article. ‘The more you can set a cadence around what you do and the more ritual and the more consistency you can build in your schedule, the less stress you’re going to have.’ Dorsey has certain days for certain aspects of the business: Mondays are for management, Tuesdays are for development, Wednesdays are for marketing, Thursdays are for building outside partnerships and Fridays are for company culture.
Obviously, you can interpret this any way you like, but as long as you have some kind of schedule in place, you’ll be able to exercise more control over your stress levels.
Promote transparency like Airbnb
One of the most important aspects of any company is the culture – a supportive, healthy work environment makes for happy, healthy people, who work more productively (it’s kind of common sense).
What’s one of the quickest ways to destroy a positive company culture? When there’s a loss of trust. If, as a manager, you keep things from your staff or promote a very ‘you-v-me’ culture, then there’s more room for distrust, resentment and negative attitudes among employees (in short, not the behaviour of a good leader). ‘The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs,’ writes CEO of Airbnb Brain Chesky in an article on Medium. ‘When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial.’ Airbnb has taken this philosophy to heart so enthusiastically they even have an entire microsite (nerds.airbnb.com) dedicated to explaining their processes and policies.
Prioritise the infamous ‘work-life balance’ like YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki
‘Being a mother…gave me a broader sense of purpose, more compassion and a better ability to prioritise and get things done efficiently,’ says Wojcicki in an article on Variety. She has a firm belief in the importance of a satisfying home life to balance your corporate one, and encourages employees to leave work at a reasonable hour every day. ‘I’m very open with my team about the hours that I keep, so that enables other people on my team to do the same,’ she says later on in the same Variety article. ‘They feel it’s OK to also go home and have dinner with their families. And people are more likely to stay here at YouTube for the long term.’
Not only is Wojcicki an inspiring figure as a woman in a male-dominated industry, but her commitment to balancing work and real life (as complicated and difficult as this is) demonstrates that powerful leaders realise the importance of this balance.
Don’t be put off when people look at you like you’re mad like Richard Branson
Richard Branson, one of the most influential names in business, writes in a thought piece on LinkedIn that his great-uncle Jim is one of the most important mentors in his life. Jim served in the army during WWII and was known for his perchance for eating grass, which he believed was a healthy habit. Despite enduring ridicule for this, he continued this quirk publicly, because as it turns out he was working for the British SAS and was instructing ground forces on how to live off foliage when food was scarce. Branson says Uncle Jim taught him that ‘it’s sometimes OK to take the path less travelled’ and when others think an idea is far-fetched, you may in fact be onto something brilliant. So be like Richard Branson’s barmy old uncle and don’t be afraid to stick to your convictions.