Exceptional Leadership: 3 Powerful Steps to Become an Exceptional and Effective Leader

Exceptional leaders help their team be proud of the work they do and they ensure their team has a voice and are heard.

The result? The team, and you, hit your goals and targets.

How you get there is by building support for your ideas and processes, and building trust between you and your team.

This No BS Guide to Becoming an Exceptional Leader shares how to create a winning culture, define efficient processes, and develop a team that wants to come to work every day.

How to Be an Exceptional Leader Contents

Two grey pencils on a yellow background signifying the basics of exceptional leadership
Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Effective Team Management: The Basics

Leader versus Manager

A leader sets the vision and gets the team excited for the path forward and a manager organizes and manages the work to get there.

Leaders also manage and managers also lead.

What Does a Team Manager Do?

You are personable, professional, organized, and follow through on your promises. You can be an introvert, an extrovert, new to management or experienced, from the same background as your team, or from a different industry.

There are no set rules applied in every instance. What’s important, is you are you.

Now, what is it you do? You develop your team’s strengths and encourage collaboration with other teams.

To do this, you behave in ways that encourage others to follow you because you are reliable and trustworthy.

This applies whether you are in a management and leadership position, or a single-contributor role. We all offer some level of leadership.

Why do you manage teams? Because you have metrics to hit, people to serve, or products to create, and you can only do that efficiently when your team understands the end goal and they are on board with how to get there.

How to Become an Exceptional Leader

Think about the colleagues you enjoy working with and those that, well… not so much. What traits do you have in common? Which traits do you need to stop doing and which should you do more of?

Now, think back to that boss you hated – the terrible one you vowed never to be like – and the one you would follow across the desert. Which of their behaviors should you replicate and which should never see the light of day?

How do you apply your list of positive behaviors to perform and stop the negative ones to deliver tangible results?

Consider these three areas:

  • The work you and your team need to do
  • How you’re all going to do the work; and
  • Who will do the work

The intent is that everyone understands what they need to do, how they’re going to do it, and when to do it by.

Two critical parts of this are:

  • The right people are working on the right tasks; and
  • The workload is achievable.
Multiple, confusing road signs for one highway signifying that exceptional leaders need to organize the work that comes into the team
Photo by Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

#1: Understand The Work You and Your Team Need to Do

Do you know what your team does, what its purpose is within the organization? Do you know why your team does the work it does?

The answers to those questions define and guide your prioritization and governance of the incoming work.

A common issue with unhappy teams is the confusion around who they’re actually doing work for, versus who they think they should be doing work for.

Sometimes the flow of work into your team is obvious, like the quality control or testing team in a software development company. It’s clear when and why and what the work is: test the software for bugs and usability after the programmers have developed it.

Some teams may have a variety of sources for their tasks, and confusion can reign when there are other teams that do similar work.

Which team should do what? Who reports to whom? Why is Sally’s team doing work for Jane, when it should go to Bob’s team? Is it because Jane doesn’t like Bob, or is it because Sally answered a question for Jane a year ago and is the first person who comes to mind when Jane needs someone to help her?

To help with your project planning, review the following and help your team understand:

  • What work the team does
  • Why it does the work; and
  • Where it comes from

Your team and your clients, or the people who send you the work, will thank you for the clarity and resulting sense of competency.

A circus performer balancing a fire ring signifying people doing the work
Photo by Conor Samuel on Unsplash

#2: Define How You and Your Team Do the Work

The key to defining how your team performs the work — the procedures it follows, the tools it uses, the order it does things in — is to have these two points front and centre:

  1. Every process and procedure MUST be efficient and workable. This is nonnegotiable.
  2. Involve your team in the definition process. Collaboration generates support and creates processes and procedures that are efficient and workable. See point #1.

Involving the team will highlight burdensome steps, and bring to light great ideas that people have had for a while, but didn’t want to mention earlier.

So, now you know what work your team does, who sends in the requests and why, and how to perform the work. The last step to becoming an exceptional leader is to recognize the skills in your team.

A French poodle on a skateboard on concrete signifying exceptional leaders understand the skills on the team
Photo by Chuko Cribb on Unsplash

#3: Assign The Right Person To Do the Work

The best part of running a team is learning about your employees’ skills and aspirations. Doing this will set you apart from the other leaders in your organization and those your employees work with during their career.

Listen and observe to find out:

  • What makes your team members smile
  • Why they come to work; and
  • Do they feel heard?

Knowing your team allows you to assign work to the person who has the greatest chance of completing it successfully.

For example, think about the person on your team who is excelling. What projects can you give them so they continue to grow and learn new skills?

How about the person struggling to deliver results? Is it a significant problem like being in the wrong organization or even the wrong career? Is it a performance issue? Or is it simpler, like they don’t have the tools they need or they have to lean on their weakest skills to do their job?

I managed an employee who was in a front facing position, responsible for one of our major customers because they were a good programmer. Except, they wouldn’t return phone calls, respond to emails, and hardly hit deadlines. One remedy was to fire them from the company.

The other option was to sit and learn more about them and what their strengths were, because it clearly wasn’t customer service. I knew they were a good programmer, what I didn’t know was they enjoyed teaching new employees while dealing with clients gave them serious anxiety.

So, I moved the employee into a back-end position where they could focus on programming and helping their colleagues without the stress of talking directly to the customers. The result was they improved the product we offered our customers, and they were happier at work, which fueled a motivation to continue improving the product.

A large, horizontal lightning strike causing the sky to gradate from white to purple to dark grey  signifying exceptional leaders make a difference
Photo by Micah Tindell on Unsplash

Next Steps: How to Make a Difference

Remember this question from earlier: Think back to that boss you hated and the one you would have gladly followed across the desert?

What are the good and bad habits they displayed?

Stop the bad habits

This is the one action that will get you the biggest change in the shortest period.

Imagine your mother’s voice, or your father’s, your favorite teacher, or your mentor: now repeat after me, “Stop it!”

Encourage your team and remove barriers

To stop bad habits, it helps to replace them with good ones. To build healthy habits and behaviours, ask yourself these two questions:

  • How can I encourage people?
  • What barriers do I need to remove?

For example, how can I encourage my team to:

  • Use my processes and tools
  • Update their service tickets
  • Meet their deadlines
  • Share their knowledge
  • Collaborate with other teams
  • Strengthen client relationships

And the follow up question:

  • What barriers do I need to remove so people can do this?

Related: Read Ask the Right Questions for examples and background behind the encourage/barrier questions.

As you think through your answers and plan how to put them into action, use this short engagement checklist. Are your plans:

  1. Easy to understand and use?
  2. Do they help fulfill a need?
  3. Are they memorable?

Related: The article The Engagement Checklist explains the checklist in more detail and shares several examples.

When we understand our team and how we can do the work successfully, we’re setting the team up for success, which leads to positive results.

Final Thoughts: Becoming an Exceptional Leader

Exceptional leaders:

  • Are ethical leaders because they consistently do the right thing for their team
  • Ensure the right people are doing the right work at the right time

Exceptional leaders work to ensure their team members and themselves:

  • Are proud of the work they do
  • Come to work because they want to; and
  • Have a voice and are heard

Effective team management happens when everyone understands:

  • What work the team does
  • Why they do the work; and
  • Where the work comes from

Exceptional leaders work to encourage their team to achieve results and remove the barriers that prevent that from happening.

Finally, leadership is like playing with building blocks. You build, test, and rearrange to see what works and what doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, you stop. If it does work, you put your hand back in the box of bricks and keep building.

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