Career

How an Average Leader Can Still be Great

Sara London

It’s entirely possible that you’re not in a leadership position because you chose it – you’re just there because someone promoted you, and your new duties involve managing other staff members. You don’t have a lifelong dream of leading companies to their respective financial promised lands, nor do you have the moxie to gather team members in a huddle, and inspire them to tackle their workdays with alacrity and passion. You want to be an average leader. Jamie Flinchbaugh, author of People Solve Problems: The Power of Every Person, Every Day, Every Problem and founder of JFlinch, is here to tell you how to be a fantastically average leader.

The phenomenon of exceptional leadership

“Exceptional leaders begin with purpose,” Flinchbaugh explains. “There is a why to their work, and there is a why to their team’s work. That why may be tied or informed by the organization’s purpose, but doesn’t always have to be. It could be an IT team that wants to deliver excellent and rapid responses to every help ticket. It could be the payroll team that wants to deliver flawless service to every employee. Purpose doesn’t always have to change the world. But it does have to change the work, and it must affect the people doing the work.”

These days, Flinchbaugh says, it’s so important in the business zeitgeist to be an exceptional leader because “exceptional performance from average talent will beat average performance from exceptional talent just about every single time. This means that no matter how much talent you are blessed to work with, the exceptional leader gets more out of that talent.” Flinchbaugh’s example is a sports team with great abilities, but awful coaching – without someone behind the scenes helping the group move forward, they won’t do well.

What defines a bad leader?

Most of the traits that constitute a bad manager, Flinchbaugh says, are also traits that can make someone a bad person. The minimum “the minimum price of entry” for good leadership, he says, is integrity.

“This isn’t a personality trait,” Flinchbaugh explains, “but without it, you don’t simply adopt integrity because it’s a company value or a requirement of the job. You either bring that to the table or you don’t, and without it, you might fool some people for a while but ultimately as soon as they learn you lack integrity, you will lose the team.”
That being said, as long as you have integrity, there’s hope for you yet to become an effective manager.

“I honestly don’t think there are any personality traits that prevent you from being a good leader,” Flinchbaugh adds. “There are effective leaders who are introverts, who are disorganized, who are procrastinators, who are inconsistent, who are poor communicators, and more. These are all just challenges that a leader must overcome with whatever strengths they have to be as effective as possible. Of course, if you remove some of those, you might be more effective, but they won’t prevent you from leading.”

A reluctant leader makes for a great leader

You don’t identify with the characteristics of an exceptional leader, but you don’t think you’re necessarily a bad leader either. You just want to be a good-enough leader – that is, if you have to be a leader at all. The good news is that this hesitation might just make you the best kind of leader: A reluctant one.

“Too many people want leadership roles not because they want to lead and serve people but because they want either the money or the perceived power that it provides,” Flinchbaugh says. “Wanting to be in a leadership role for the wrong reasons often leads to poor leadership. But when someone is thrust into a leadership role that they didn’t seek, they may not have all the tools and skills needed to be successful, but they can at least start from a perspective of service and humility.”

Much like King George VI, known as the reluctant king of England, became a symbol of steadfastness and honor during the turbulent era of World War I, Flinchbaugh also adds that there’s a certain level of excitement in seeing an “improbable and unassuming leader” rise to the occasion.

“They are more likely to ask for or accept help… learn from their own mistakes… and listen to the people they lead, because they didn’t seek out the opportunity to control them.”

When average leadership is the best kind of leadership

Now that you’ve been inspired to step up to the plate, and lead England through the Great War, remember that you don’t need to flip open a Google Doc and write the next great inspiring speech to harness your inner King George. Sometimes, all it takes to be a great leader is to know how to be an average one.

“The easiest way to explain average is that average leaders view their role as transactional,” Flinchbaugh explains. “The interactions with the team, and reason for existence between them and their team, is transactional. The entire goal is to produce an outcome, not to fulfill a purpose,” like exceptional leaders are prone to do.

Consequently, the average leader doesn’t have their mind on the larger company culture or imparting values into their team – they just want to get the job done, without purpose coating every corner of life’s daily minutiae. To exceptional leaders, forsaking purpose may be the greatest sin. But to those pushed into a position of leadership, sometimes the best thing you can do is recognize your limitations, and take a more hands-off approach.

In order to be the best average leader you can be, here are a few tips:

1. Direction and prioritization

In terms of the bare bones of leadership, Flinchbaugh says, the first thing any leader needs to know is where the team is going, and how to take steps to get there. Whether it’s a deadline for a project or a meeting with a client, even the average leader needs to tell employees when, where, and how to get the job done.

“A team must know what is important,” Flinchbaugh adds, “and all know the same answer, otherwise they will be working at odds with each other.”

2. Mechanisms

While well-run meetings aren’t a necessity, Flinchbaugh recommends that synchronous and asynchronous coordination mechanisms be in place so that everyone can stay on the same page. As the team leader, it’s your responsibility to set up those communications, even if you need to ask for feedback and tweak them over time.

3. Embracing conflict

The next thing any average leader needs to do is use conflict to help the team progress. Whether someone is disagreeing with you or with their coworker, you need to foster an environment where everyone feels safe enough to hash out their issues together. Remember that reluctant leaders are likely to ask for help, listen and learn from mistakes, and all of these triumphs are borne of conflict.

“It’s a tough one,” Flinchbaugh adds, “but if you don’t embrace the conflict, then the conflict consumes the team and you’re done.”

4. Getting out of the way

The last thing that an average leader needs to do is to get out of the way – let your team blossom, and find their own path. Give them the freedom to problem-solve and innovate on their own, and while Flinchbaugh says that though you should provide your team with the “fundamentals,” it’s just as important that you accept your average leadership, and the lack of oversight it may come with. If you don’t provide the fundamentals of structure and direction, but you do “get in the way” by checking in excessively or micromanaging, you could easily be downgraded from an average leader to a below-average one.

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