10 Tips for Good Leadership for CEOs and Managers

Stepping down as CEO of Australian Childhood Trauma Group has had me take pause and consider the topic of leadership. This was partly motivated by a list that came across my LinkedIn feed from a group called Leadership First.

They posted this list:

  1. Ability to inspire
  2. Ability to delegate
  3. Communication
  4. Sense of humour
  5. Confidence
  6. Commitment
  7. Good attitude
  8. Creativity
  9. Intuition
  10. Honesty

Cheekily I responded with ‘personally, I prefer my list… I stepped down as CEO last Tuesday of the organisation I founded many years ago and this was my list’.

  1. Sleep well ­– there’s always tomorrow
  2. Act honourably in all your decisions
  3. Be kind and generous to your staff – they are your greatest asset
  4. Set the bar high and support people to get there
  5. Some of your staff will not like you ­– get over it
  6. It is a lonely job and your staff will not always thank you or understand your decisions
  7. Be playful at work sometimes
  8. If you go for a drink with your staff after work be the first to leave not the last
  9. Know when to step down as CEO there will always be someone better than you
  10. Dance to 70s disco music at least three times a week

It seemed to hit a nerve with people and went on to have a LinkedIn life of its own. I decided that I would unpack a little more about my list and share here. It’s not that I disagree with Leadership First, however I find that the list is a little too removed from the day-to-day action on the ground when running a successful business, whether that be a not-for-profit or a for profit organisation.

Sleep well – there’s always tomorrow

I have had some very tough days in my work as the CEO of the organisation, usually around staff issues but also around customer or project management and that old chestnut CASHFLOW.

Solving these issues has required my mind to be fresh and switched on. I have found when I have been overwhelmed, sleep has not been an escape but rather a rejuvenator or repairer, allowing me to look at the issues from a different angle and with a fresh outlook. If it is daytime and the issue you are looking at is increasing your level of stress, try having a five to 15 minute siesta, when you wake, you will have a different perspective.

Act honourably in all your decisions

Sometimes I found myself confronted by moral dilemmas – someone offering me something if I cut corners, staff not accurately portraying their client hours in the organisation’s favour – and questioned if I should speak out and risk losing customers? I have found when I act honourably, do the right thing, which is not always the easy thing, the ‘universe’ looks out for me. But sometimes it takes great conviction to act right, to be honourable.

Some people think acting honourably means that you are weak and won’t make ‘tough’ decisions, however these tend to be people who do not understand what it is to be honourable in one’s dealings with people. If staff are not meeting expectations, I have let them know in ways that are respectful to them and their circumstances. I am not responsible for the decisions staff make in their personal lives nor the impact this has on their physical, psychological and spiritual selves.

Acting honourably does not mean staff are let off the hook, although it does mean I have in place systems and employment conditions that meet government regulations or in fact go beyond.

Be kind and generous to your staff – they are your greatest asset

It may seem this is at odds with what I have said in Point 2 above, however it is not. Being kind and generous to staff is critically important in developing loyalty, if you have the right staff in place.

Being kind and generous to staff recognises their contribution to your success as a business owner or CEO. It is a symbiotic relationship. You, the leader, cannot have success in isolation, you require a team around you.

You can show kindness and generosity in many ways – acknowledging a piece of work well done, rewarding through renumeration packages, supporting staff development and so forth. Sometimes however, being kind and generous means speaking with candour to staff when they are not meeting expectations. If you choose not to say anything , you are doing no favours to the organisation or indeed a staff member who may not be performing as expected. Letting someone continue in the organisation because you lack the courage to act is neither kind nor generous to that person.

Set the bar high and support people to get there

Setting the bar high with the right support around people is more likely to produce a win-win for the organisation and the people in it. As human beings we tend to do better when we are challenged to perform well. Note this is as opposed to challenging someone beyond what you know their capabilities to be and thus setting them up for failure.

Setting the bar high requires a process in place where staff have the resources and support to give it their best shot, and providing feedback along the way, adjusting where necessary.

Failure, in the beginning should be seen as an opportunity to learn and grow. If the failure is  a one-off, the person or team should not be dressed down or shamed. Failure that becomes a pattern is a different matter. Where a team or individual who have been provided with the resources and support to perform well, but constantly don’t, see Point 3.

Some of your staff will not like you ­– get over it

This has been the hardest thing for me to learn and accept over the years. It doesn’t matter how nice a person you are, there will be some people who will simply not like you. In most cases this is not because of who you are but rather what is in them. We all have a personal narrative, a history, an unconscious that at times – unbeknown to our conscious self – will project things that others will pick up on and vice versa.

You might grate on people or people may be envious of your status and what you have created. It is not a good use of time to dwell on these things, although it is perfectly OK and good practice to reflect (as opposed to ruminate) on relationships at work that might be fraught and take action where necessary. However, at some point you need to let go and move on.

It is a lonely job and your staff will not always thank you or understand your decisions

The story of me setting up my company after working for a number of years as a lone consultant is not unusual. One of the reasons I set up the business was because being a solo consultant was a lonely business. I wanted a team to work with, only to discover being the owner/boss was also a lonely business. You cannot be the boss and be a friend to your staff. They will not want this nor is it healthy for people in management positions to have this as a goal.

At times you need to make very difficult decisions that might include reducing team numbers due to financial challenges in the environment that you work, or realigning teams with a different mix. These decisions are made in the best interests of the collective whole and of course in times of change staff can feel unsettled.

Due to the nature of some decisions, staff will not always have access to the detail of why a decision is made and therefore you may receive some flak. You will need to be courageous enough to hold the flak that comes your way and not react. However, keep in mind staff should be, where possible, informed in appropriate detail of the reason for the decisions being made.

Be playful at work sometimes

Staff need to see that you are human and can ‘let your hair down’. This should not be mistaken for playing the fool or being the party clown. From time to time in a work environment you might need to reduce the level of stress or tension, being playful can help to accomplish this.

It is also the case that loyal and hardworking staff may themselves forget to have some downtime and therefore your leadership in this way may help those staff to see the importance of having some time through the day to switch off or take a short break.

If you go for a drink with your staff after work be the first to leave not the last

In many organisations staff get together socially to relax after a big week, or perhaps there is an event to celebrate an occasion, such as someone’s birthday or a religious event.

While as a CEO or senior manager it is not possible to instruct people what to do in their own time or how much to drink, you can set an expectation by how you act. Given the relationships you have with subordinates and the decisions you sometimes have to make you cannot afford to be compromised, as this can make difficult decisions even more problematic.

Know when to step down as CEO there will always be someone better than you

Some CEOs think the role is for life. This is a dangerous assumption. Due to staff turnover through the years, the age gap between me and my staff has grown. As this gap has grown, I have noted the gap between our shared expectations and sometimes work values that appear less aligned. One set of values is not better than the other, although the phrase ‘grumpy old man’ comes from somewhere.

I have noticed sometimes our egos as CEOs get in the way of getting out of the way. The best decision I ever made was to replace myself. It brought freshness to the organisation and a greater focus on what was needed to grow. Letting go was not easy but it was easier than I thought it would be.

Dance to 70s disco music at least 3 times a week

This might seem rather left of field and of course 70s disco music may not be everybody’s cup of tea, sadly. However, this is another way of me saying you need an outlet. Leading an organisation is a huge undertaking. I once asked a mentor of mine, an ex-CEO, when I was having a difficult time, ‘What was the longest period of time you had as a CEO where you weren’t having to manage people or put out spot fires?’  She paused for a moment and said, ‘Maybe a day or two’.

Her answer brought me back to reality and after that I accepted that if I got a day or two where things were relatively settled then that was OK. Altering my expectations helped me to keep going as long as I have. But it also took me to discover practices that enabled me to reenergise and keep myself physically and psychologically fit, and 70s disco was one of those things.

Gregory Nicolau

Founder / Former CEO

Australian Childhood Trauma Group