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What people really want from their leader
Illustration by Grey Vaisius

4 min read

What people really want from their leader

Pinning down the right leadership attributes is a never ending challenge. Instead, let's take a look at what people really want from their leaders.

A while back I wrote an article that outlines 7 roles of an effective leader. While this list of leadership qualities was by no means arbitrary, I admit that it was hastily assembled from a handful of great leaders I'd been fortunate enough to work with over the course of my career. 

I'd cherry picked the best traits and slapped 'em together. Sort of a Frankenstein's monster of leadership, if you will.

But it got me wondering if the qualities and characteristics I had in mind were aligned with other people's image of an effective leader. So I started asking around: friends, colleagues, old roommates, my neighbor Randy. Although most agreed that the qualities I'd outlined in my article were good to have, they each pointed out additional leadership qualities that I hadn't yet considered.

Now, instead of adding new sections to that article (which, based on feedback, would be a never ending task) I decided to write a new article, one that's centered around what people really want from their leader. My hope is that I can compile a more focused list, but since this too is an impossible task, I want your help. If there's anything I'm missing (there most certainly is!), please say so in the comments below. Great leadership takes on different forms for each of us, after all.

What people really want from their leader

Over the course of my informal survey, almost everyone agreed that the most important thing they wanted from their leader was support, which is entirely reasonable and sounds simple enough, right? But the thing is, a leader's support can mean anything from consoling someone during a crisis to giving them the boost they need to overcome that fast-approaching deadline. How you define support also depends on your preferred way of working.

To complicate this further, there's also different kinds of leadership: the visionary CEO, the people manager, the tech guru with zero reports who's forever answering questions from colleagues. In reality there are many more types of leaders, but for brevity's sake, we'll keep it simple. The point being: different people have different needs from different leaders.

So, your preferred way of working and the type of leader you're reporting to both have an impact on what kind of support you need. However, the support you think you need from your leader might be completely different from the support you actually need. You might say you want a hands-off leader, but you know deep down that the way you work practically requires someone to keep you focused. 

Which brings me to this incredibly important question that I think all leaders should ask, at some point or another, of their reports:

How do you like to be managed?

This is one of those questions that people ask in interviews which sort of seems like a trick question but, if answered honestly, is actually quite revealing of a) your preferred way of working and the support that you require, and b) a conscientious, empathetic leader who's willing to adapt their leadership style to accommodate that (if they can).

So, leaders, ask this question. It's a great way to show that you're accepting of different modes of working, different communication styles, and that you're an adaptable leader, not rigid or domineering.

Narrowing down what exactly you need from your leader (be honest with yourself), and communicating that with them is a must. From this, we can already jot down 3 characteristics that people want from their leaders:

  • Honest and open communication
  • The ability and willingness to adapt their management style
  • Working with their team members rather than giving them orders or expecting them to fit a mold

To elaborate on that last bullet point: people want their leaders to understand that they're individuals and their leader should be able to recognize that the kind of support they require might be entirely different from their coworkers.

Able to create a psychological safe workplace

The people I spoke to also all agreed "providing support" means creating a team dynamic where everyone feels safe sharing their ideas or taking risks. This immediately reminded me of Amy Edmondson's concept of psychological safety. 

Psychologically safe team members “feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.” While this might seem like it's up to everyone to create an open, safe environment, the responsibility actually lies squarely upon the shoulders of that team's leader.

If a leader is struggling to maintain that psychological safety, it's going to be evident to not only the team member who feels uncomfortable, but also to everyone else on that team, too. 

To foster a safe working environment, leaders should excel at moderating team discussions in a way that holds space for marginalized voices and people who might otherwise feel uncomfortable voicing their opinion. No one should feel uncomfortable collaborating with their team.

Confidence in employees' skills and expertise

People want their leaders to trust in their abilities, not only to fulfill the responsibilities that fall under their job description, but also to tackle whatever obstacles that might crop up. Of course, this is earned over time, usually in the first 6 months or so as leaders gain awareness of their employees' strengths and weaknesses.

But some leaders simply have trouble believing in their employees no matter what. These leaders are rare, but their lack of trust can leave a lasting impression on employees that ripples throughout their career. 

To avoid this, leaders should first and foremost have some faith in their own best judgment: if you've put the effort and thought into hiring this person, if they were the most qualified and competent candidate for the job, chances are you picked the strongest candidate and it'll pay off in the long run. 

Relatedly, people want their leader's respect, and they're willing to work hard to earn it.

Conclusion

So, here we are at the end of this article, still very much resigned to the fact that it's impossible to pin down the positive traits of great leaders. But hopefully this gives a realistic idea of what people want and expect from their leaders. I'm sure if you asked another group of people to provide a list, they'd come up with entirely different answers--and that's kind of the point! What you need from your leader will differ from what the next person needs.

A good leader is willing to work with their reports to find the right way to communicate, provide support, and share a sense of mutual respect.

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