People often leave companies because of the failings of their bosses. As a result, many organizations are intentional about investing in leader development. That’s because more effective managers advance business results and can mitigate attrition of vital talent.
But retaining high-performing employees doesn’t happen simply because their bosses went to a few training programs. Something much more ingrained in the leader creates the bond that makes employees not only want to stay but also eager to contribute under the stewardship of their boss.
As an executive coach to leaders at global companies, I’ve observed how some leaders manage to motivate their teams during good and bad times. These bosses see the art of managing people as something to practice and improve through disciplined personal habits, not unlike mastering a craft or a fitness pursuit.
Here are four unique habits strong leaders practice with intention that make people actually want to follow them, no matter what challenges come their way:
They invite criticism and don’t wince when hearing it
Most leaders know that being able to receive feedback is vital for surfacing blind spots. Yet not everyone makes a habit of asking for feedback. And many who do still go about it the wrong way.
Some leaders will say all the “right” textbook things, like “I want you to be honest and tell me when I’m doing something wrong.” But the minute an employee takes them up on the offer, they have trouble handling it.
I once coached a VP at a Fortune 100 company who would exclaim with great pride and confidence to his team: “The best teams operate on mutual trust and growth, so I expect you to let me know when I’m not doing a good job and how to be better.”
Yet when I interviewed his team members as part of an assessment of his effectiveness, they shared how hard it was to offer him constructive feedback because he got so defensive and dismissive of their input.
Over time, his colleagues simply refused to tell him what they thought. And he soon noticed that his request for feedback had the completely opposite effect on their motivation. Through coaching, he recognized he had to find a way to get their trust back.
First, he publicly owned—without caveats—that he was unfairly putting the burden on them to help him see his blind spots. He apologized and asked for a reset so he could more openly receive feedback and make it safe for others to be honest.
My client accepted that he didn’t have to agree with others all the time but that it was his responsibility to manage his own emotions and maturity in processing criticism. And though it took some time for people to come around, his team deeply appreciated his authentic admission of failure. In fact, it motivated them not only to be more honest but also to look at how they could grow under his feedback.
They dazzle on the big stage but are aware of their fallibility
We often admire leaders because of their charisma and gravitas. But being in awe of a presenter’s public speaking style, or their stories at a company town hall, isn’t enough to make people truly want to work for them.
Executives who can captivate an audience at scale can certainly have a positive impact, but those who truly get results are the ones who balance bravado with humility and quiet confidence. Leaders with this brand of confidence attract people not because they are perfect; on the contrary, leaders who are quietly confident are admired because they know they are imperfect and are completely secure about that.
I once worked with the president of a multibillion-dollar business division within a global company whose high position in the corporate hierarchy made him inaccessible to most members of the organization. The majority of employees experienced him only through town halls, company-wide broadcasts, and other media-driven activities.
But he felt this level of inaccessibility went against his leadership philosophy. He didn’t think it was right to stay in such stratified spaces, away from supporting those doing the heavy lifting for the company.
So he offered his time mentoring people several layers down in the organization. And he set up a monthly roundtable of randomly selected employees and managers to meet with him to answer questions and share his experiences.
In these sessions, he was known to share more of his failures than his successes, injecting humor and emphasizing their shared humanity rather than the hierarchy. Attendees consistently reported feeling surprisingly comfortable in his presence, and year after year he received high scores across employee surveys and was a top attractor of talent.
Many senior executives struggle with insecurity and are hesitant to show too much vulnerability for fear of being seen as weak. But my client’s quiet confidence and ease with his strengths as well as his flaws created a deep sense of safety among those around him.
They don’t play favorites, and actively challenge their biases
The job of a leader is to drive results through other people. But human nature is complex and unpredictable. As a result, some leaders lean too much on those they like and who like them.
It’s natural for executives to have favorites among their team. But personal biases may cause them to overinflate some employees’ effectiveness while underestimating the potential of those outside their circle. In my experience, the leaders who don’t succumb to this trap are the ones who are more successful in the long run. Leaders who don’t play favorites are more prepared to deal with future challenges because they attract and develop broader sets of people with hidden strengths. Furthermore, when these leaders recognize their biases, they position themselves as more trusted and worth following by all of their employees.
I saw this dynamic up close when I was coaching a new CFO who was taking over a team where her predecessor had clearly divided the group into his favorites and outsiders. Prior favorites of the former CFO were eager to be in her good graces, and prior outsiders were hoping she would call out entitled behavior when she saw it.
Ironically, by wanting to remove the stigma of favoritism from the past, she started to develop her own biases. She began to believe those in her predecessors’ good graces were undeserving and felt an affinity toward those outside of his circle.
The new CFO decided to conduct an objective assessment of talent and potential, which revealed that not all prior favorites were bad actors and not all outsiders were without flaws. Instead of worrying about favorites and outsiders, she focused on bringing everyone back to a cohesive, inclusive state and coaching them on universal criteria of team effectiveness.
In time she led the team much differently than her predecessor. Her team was made up of managers and workers who never felt as if they were treated differently by their boss, which made them even more motivated to support her vision.
They actively seek opportunities to help individuals shine
While many employees follow a leader out of obligation, the ones who are willing to “go to the moon and back” for someone experience something quite profound with their boss.
They don’t just work for them; they believe in them. And they are convinced that their boss believes in them as well. This conviction doesn’t come from simple platitudes in thank-you emails or the occasional gift card from their boss. It emerges when they see that their leader is looking out for others. They believe that their boss is even comfortable with making them more successful.
As a leader, you may not realize how much power you have in building up the visibility and success of others behind you. Instead of competing against those you lead, realize that their opportunity to shine will develop a deeper willingness among them to support your vision, which will ultimately advance your own recognition and ability to succeed.
Be proactive in looking for ways to help your most talented people expand their impact and network. Consider being more than just a mentor and a boss—be a committed sponsor of their future.
Most leaders can afford to do more than the bare minimum when it comes to appreciating the talent of those who deserve recognition and access. Provide something that truly elevates others. When workers sense that you are willing to go out of your way to set them up for future success, you become the kind of leader people actually want follow.
In the effort to retain talented employees and motivate them to perform at their best, many organizations are investing in developing better bosses. This is a step in the right direction. But the leaders who naturally attract motivation from their people practice these four habits with discipline. They know that if they truly want steady, unwavering support, they must prove they are worth following.
Nihar Chhaya is an executive coach to leaders at global companies, including American Airlines, Coca-Cola, Cox Communications, DraftKings, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, and others.
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