I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to inspiring workplaces with great leaders and thinkers of all shapes and styles. And through my observations and own experiences, I’ve picked up on some core principles that I find prevalent in all great leaders.

First and foremost, I find the most fundamental principle of leadership to be empathy. It is not management, power, or hierarchal position. And it’s not how extroverted or charismatic you are. It’s the consistent and deliberate practice of placing yourself in the shoes of your customers and the people you work with. The second principle is ego. More specifically; the ability to control it and detect when it is influencing your behaviour. Everyone has an ego, but it is especially damaging if allowed to reign over your decision making. And finally; direction. Direction is about doing the right thing; maintaining focus on what matters, and filtering any external noise which detracts from this focus.

The leadership equation

Leadership = EMPATHY – EGO + DIRECTION

Take away your ego, add empathy and direction, and you have leadership.

In reality, there is a good degree of overlap and crossover between these principles. For example, you cannot be empathetic if you are egotistic. And you cannot be focused on what matters if you are not empathetic. But for the sake of clarity, I will go into the details of each principle separately.

Empathy

Empathy is about seeing the world through other people’s eyes, and leading through their perspectives, wants and needs. Humans have the natural inclination to dwell inside the mental cocoons of their own psyche. The remarkable leader is one who develops the ability to look, feel and think beyond themselves, and understand the viewpoints and thought patterns of others. This is the single most powerful mental skill you can possess, not just in the domain of leadership, but in every aspect of life that involves people.

Great leaders empathise with the people that surround them, and great companies empathise with their customers and the markets they seek to penetrate. Empathy-driven companies solve real problems for the customer, and thus succeed. Ego-driven companies solve problems that don’t exist or don’t matter (e.g. revenue, profits, etc) and thus fail.

Here are some practical way you can practice empathy:

  • Actively aim to look beyond yourself, and understand other people’s viewpoints. This means understanding the limitations of the human perspective and where it comes into play. What your mind renders to be the normal interpretation of an event or situation is not necessarily universal. Your brain has just applied a bunch of its own learned rules to something and made its own judgement. There is nothing wrong with this, and it is responsible for the amazing variety of people you will meet in your life – but being aware of it will make you a more open minded person. Try to keep this in mind next time you have conflicting opinions with someone, or when you’re struggling to meet eye to eye.
  • Listen – people like to be understood, and this is irrespective of whether if their thoughts are acted upon. The act of making the effort to understand and appreciate someone’s viewpoint is powerful. Next time someone expresses an opinion, understand it first, convey your understanding, and then express your response to that viewpoint. Never dismiss an expression of feeling or thought without considering it first.
  • Do not assume that malicious behaviour is necessarily caused by malicious intent. Always make an effort to understand the cause of behaviour, which may be very legitimate indeed. Perhaps you could sit down with the person and ask them how they feel, and what their concerns may be. Never be confrontational with a person who’s acting maliciously, or in an ego-driven manner. You will always exacerbate the situation. In the same way, do not assume that underperformance is caused by conscious disengagement. There’s always a reason. It’s your responsibility to find it first, and then act accordingly.
  •  Understand, and only then critique poor performance. If you don’t understand the causal factors that have led to poor performance, you will be unable to highlight the appropriate actions to take to unblock progress. Furthermore, you may evoke resentment from the people you work with.

Ego

Ego is about self-awareness and introspection. While empathy is about looking into others, ego is about looking into and understanding yourself.  Everyone has an ego. Yes, you too. It’s unavoidable, and it’s human. Your ego has the potential to be highly destructive, and people who are most effective at leading keep their egos from driving their behaviour. Ego-induced mind states and behaviour include wanting to be right, wanting to be obeyed, defensiveness, personalising events, feeling offended and feeling angry.

Ego-driven leadership can be a blocker to utilising and unlocking the talents and skills present in a team. You can either lead through your ego, and keep these talents locked away, or you can disregard your ego and lead through others. This means enabling others to be leaders themselves in some shape or form, whether it is advocating a good idea, or empowering an individual or group to take ownership over something that matters to them.

Ways you can practice the principle of ego include:

  • Be aware of and accept that you aren’t always right, you don’t always have the best ideas, and that you don’t always have to be right. Being a leader isn’t synonymous with being right. What’s more important that you work from a framework of what matters, as described in the next section. Admit when you are wrong – let others be right and commend them for it.
  • An ego-driven leader believes great leadership is about being in the frontline, and the limelight. Not true. Where practical, co-create your vision with your colleagues – grant them a sense of ownership over the team and the project. Even better, empower them; make everyone a leader in some way or form.
  • When you exhibit ego-driven behaviour, you will much more likely trigger the equivalent in the other person. If you express anger and a confrontational demeanour – you will automatically trigger defensiveness and a similar level of ego-driven behaviour in the other person. Often, the same exact words, said with a calm and controlled tone, will have an entirely different effect than if expressed in a rash, demeaning manner.

Direction

Direction is the constant, unrelenting focus on what matters, and what makes an impact. 

Opinions don’t matter; data matters. Words don’t matter; actions do. What your ego says doesn’t matter, but your gut instinct, which is a product of your intuition and past experiences, does. (Yes, there is a difference). Your vision doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t resonate with the customers that you seek to attract.

Direction is also just as much about enforcing focus, as it is about implementing it.

How you can practice good direction:

  • Focus on what matters. Challenge every decision and plan around that same framework. You can determine what matters by assessing what will have an impact on the goals, objectives and KPIs of the company. You should treat any decision or activity which doesn’t fit into that criteria as a distraction, and be relentless in removing it.
  • Filter out noise from outside – that forms a distraction from what matters. Appreciate input but don’t let it sway the team. You should be the stabilising mechanism for unwanted external perturbations that divert the team from what really matters.
  • Delegate based on what people want to do, what they’re good at and where they have potential in developing. There is also a strong element of empathy in this. Placing people in roles in which they do not enjoy is poor direction, just as is placing people in roles in which they have little potential for progress.
  • Identify people who are not suited to the team and role, and remove or relocate them. Being relieved of a job can be one of the best things that can happen to a person, especially if they are smart and competent but proving to be unsuitable for the role. Instead, you will be empowering them by force to find better, more suitable opportunities elsewhere.

In essence

In essence, what does an empathetic, introspective (not ego driven), and focused (directed) leader look like? They know what matters for the company, and they listen and delegate well. They do not lose their temper often, and they shield the team against noise that detracts from focus. They are empathetic and conscious of the need for self-development of the people around them. They are easy to talk to, and approachable, but extremely firm and relentless with maintaining focus. They do not jump to conclusions on poor performance, but they do not hesitate to relieve people of their roles within good reason. They lead by example, and are willing to get their hands dirty. And finally, they can be just like you and I.

Really, this is just an idealistic view of leadership which reflects my personal experiences and viewpoints. There are vastly differing styles of leadership which prove to be effective in different contexts. And mostly importantly, there is also no such thing as a perfect, empathetic, ego-free, focused leader. The human condition means you will sway from these principles from time to time, and you will make mistakes. You will lose your temper, get offended, or sometimes engage in destructive behaviour. But the more you consciously make the effort to develop these skills and traits, the more positive impact you will make in whatever you may be engaged in.