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4 Steps to Better Leadership: A Lesson in Magic & Management

[Written for LinkedIn]

A very wise and totally-not-fictional wizard headmaster once said, “It is a curious thing…but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who…have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”

And, while this is as lovely as it is insightful, we can’t all be bespectacled teenage Quidditch prodigies hell-bent on destroying the most evil villain of all time and saving the wizarding world from his reign of terror. In fact, most of us aren’t even this guy.

The majority of us won’t hesitantly-but-then-gracefully ascend to our true destiny as *Leader* — but instead scrabble our way up the corporate ladder, foisting ourselves in management and leadership roles for various increases of autonomy, salary, decision-making power, status, and resume bullets. But here’s the thing, even if you don’t have leadership thrust upon you, and “take up the mantle” because you did seek it out, that doesn’t mean you can’t still “wear it well.”

For recently-appointed or aspiring managers, here are a few ways to ensure you thrive in your new position:

Stop worrying about being the smartest person in the room

For the official record, the smartest person in the room is almost never the guy bloviating out loud about their alleged expertise, but rather the person taking the time to actively listen to others, and asking thoughtful, productive questions that benefit the group. These questions also never start with “Well, when I worked with [NAME DROP]” or “As someone deeply involved in [HUMBLE BRAG]” or “Just to play devil’s advocate for a second, but [DID YOU MISS THE PART WHERE I WAS SUPERIOR? LET ME KNOW WHERE I LOST YOU].”

The point is, trying too hard to look smart is transparent behavior to most people, and you’re not likely to win yourself much respect, admiration, or cooperation doing so. What is more, you shouldn’t be fostering the kind of environment that encourages combative, one-upper type conversations — presumably, you should be meeting to learn from and collaborate with each other, not clammering to demonstrate your worthiness 24/7. In this case, it’s easiest to lead by example. Though (as manager) you are likely the one with the most influence and ultimate decision-making power in the room, that doesn’t mean you have to hold court. Depending on the decision or issue at hand, surround yourself with those who have specific, relevant expertise, and (when possible) defer to their knowledge.

Lynn Good, CEO of Duke Energy, puts it best: “At a certain career level, it’s no longer about whether you are the smartest subject-matter expert in the room…You’re looking for that transition from being the smartest person in the room — and caring so much about that — to being the most effective.” And, when it comes to management, Good explains that effectiveness stems from “those qualitative things that give you the ability to network, communicate, and lead people toward an outcome they can’t see.”

Sometimes, you’ll need to put your employees first

When Marietta Edgecombe sold out Dumbledore’s Army to the ministry, it was Dumbledore who took the fall for Harry and his scrappy group of Defense Against the Dark Arts protégés (quick explanation for those who don’t understand this reference), in spite of Harry being the one more obviously at fault at first glance. Still, upon closer reflection, you could conclude that it was Dumbledore’s lack of communication as a leader that caused Harry to strike out on his own in the first place, and — as the one ultimately in charge — Dumbledore owns this responsibility and holds himself accountable.

According to Higher Ambition author Tobias Fredberg, it is this predisposition to take personal responsibility for team failures (and widely share the credit for team successes) that sets apart the exceptional from the acceptable in management. Fredburg asserts that a leader’s ability to play the role of “exemplar” is “critical to winning the trust of employees and other stakeholders.” Leaders, he says, need the “endurance and stamina to lead their organizations through thick and thin,” as well as the capacity to “contain the anxiety of their employees.”

As a manager, you are more beholden to the success of the collective enterprise than yourself, and your actions should reflect that. If your management style involves spreading blame, then you’re not only failing to understand that you are ultimately in charge, but you’re also promoting a culture of insecurity, elusive accountability, and lack of initiative ownership.

Foster relationships built on trust

First-time managers can be more susceptible to the desire to insert themselves into all facets of their team and its projects, but doing so can seriously risk the team’s morale. If you’re the kind of leader who zeroes in on every minute detail, self-describes as a “control freak,” needs to be CC-ed on all communication, and requires approvals for every step of the way, then — let’s not sugarcoat this — you are a micromanager. While to you this may seem like a demonstration of your commitment to the team, your employees probably see it as an assumption that they can’t be trusted to do their jobs.

You may be thinking, “Well it saves time if I just get it done myself,” or “This project is too important for anything to go wrong,” but in the long run this kind of mentality only shields your team from opportunities to learn and grow. From the get-go, you should reflect on the entirety of your responsibilities, and find a way to prioritize big-ticket items over more low-hanging fruit. Clearly communicate to your team which things require your guidance and approval, and which others they can exercise more autonomy over. In communicating that you trust your team members to execute on certain tasks without excessive managerial interference — and then following through on allowing them to do so — you demonstrate your belief in their ability to rise to the challenge. This in turn gives you more time to focus your efforts where they should be — on the big picture.

Solicit honest feedback

Even if you are incredibly casual and familiar as a manager, understand that your position in the hierarchy will always inform your interactions with your team, and any attempts to garner honest feedback from subordinates on your own performance must be done thoughtfully and carefully.

“People with formal power can affect our fate in many ways,” says James Deter, associate professor at the Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management, “They can withhold critical resources, they can give us negative evaluations and hold us back from promotions, and they can even potentially fire us or have us fired.” Because of this, odds are good that your employees won’t give you truly honest feedback for fear of retaliation. And, though this might feel like a bit of a reprieve from criticism (does anyone really like constructive criticism?), your team’s silence won’t help you, your company, or your career. To get real feedback from your team, try a few of these:

  • Start anonymously: Try undertaking a cross-evaluation assessment, ideally one administered by a third-party. Make sure that, post-evaluation, you openly discuss what you’ve learned — this shows that you’re open to hearing constructive criticism.
  • Ask for it often: If you actively solicit feedback on a regular basis (think at weekly 1:1s, rather than quarterly reviews), you demonstrate your commitment to improvement and honest communication.
  • Always say thank you: I get it, feedback is hard, and it’s easy to get defensive. Still, no one is going to give honest feedback to the boss who needs to counter any or all constructive criticism. Fight the urge to compose a rebuttal, breathe, consider what’s being said, and then THANK THAT PERSON for saying it. This is the best way to demonstrate willingness to hear honesty.