Leadership Expert Ken Myer on How to Build Yourself Into a Trustworthy and Motivating Leader

For many founders, launching and growing a business is also their first crack at leading a team. Labs mentor Ken Myer, executive leadership expert and lecturer at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington, held a Labs session all about leadership, from the qualities to start building in yourself to the key mistakes to avoid.

Leadership isn’t one-size-fits-all

Rather than assuming that you’re either a born leader or you’re not, know that “leadership can be learned,” Myer says. “And we all have our own leadership style—there’s no one ‘perfect’ one. You have to find your own authentic version of being a good leader rather than trying to follow some cookie cutter mold.”

“Leadership development is really about becoming a better version of you,” Myer says. “You’re motivating other human beings, and that means you need to become better at making decisions, better at individualizing your leadership, better at communicating to all kinds of audiences, and better at understanding what impact you’re having on others. Self-awareness is a fundamental principle of becoming a good leader, and it’s a goal that one works on throughout a life-time.”

You have to build your self-awareness muscle

Becoming more self-aware probably sounds like a lofty, and somewhat abstract, goal, but it’s actually very concrete. “Start by having an observer’s mindset when you’re in a leadership role,” Myer says. “When you go into a meeting or you’re planning to coach a team member, remind yourself to slow down and seek to observe how others are reacting to you.  As leaders we’re so often in a rush that we can ‘turn off our radar’ and not be sensitive to how others are reacting to our messages or decisions.”  

You also need to develop a circle of friends, and ideally employees who can tell you the absolute truth about your behavior,” Myer says. “It takes a lot of strength as a leader to say ‘I’m going to mess up at some point and I need you to point it out and help me when I do. You have to make a commitment to develop a relationship with someone who can do that for you.”  

Even if you’re just a team of one now, it’s never too early to start honing your leadership skills. “I can’t overstate how important it is for entrepreneurs to think about the leader they want to become and make development a priority,” Myer says. “You’re not just you as solo performer anymore— it’s you as a leader of a team and that means you’re going to significantly impact those around you, for good or bad. It’s a serious responsibility.”

There’s a big difference between leading and managing, and good leaders do both

Leadership and management are not the same thing, and it’s important that you understand how they differ. “John Kotter has written about this, and I like the distinction he makes,” Myer says. “Management is how you deal with and reduce complexity when you run a business, so for example, making sure people understand their roles and responsibilities, and having processes in place for doing things. Leadership on the other hand, is about motivation and helping people deal with change. They’re different but complementary skills and you have to develop both.”

Problems can arise if you’re focusing too much energy on one over the other. “If you’re just managing, you’re not necessarily inspiring folks to get anywhere. You’re just putting mechanisms in place to reduce complexity. But if you’re just doing leadership, you’re telling people to go take that hill but you’re not putting tools in place to deal with complexity. You’re going to frustrate folks if you’re not giving them a path to get to where you’re trying to go.”

Great leaders build trust

“The goal of a leader is to build trust with others and to motivate them,” Myer says. Starting with trust, there are a few key qualities to focus on building. First is to operate based on values. “You want people to see that you’re making decisions from a moral compass, and that have a strong sense of ethics,” Myer says.  

“Another thing that matters to people is that you’re authentic; you’re not trying to act like you’re someone else,” Myer says. “People should see you, warts and all, accept your flaws and see you admitting that you’re still trying to improve yourself.”

Employees also want to see that you have sound decision-making abilities. Most importantly, “they want to know that you’re good at deciding when to make decisions quickly and when you should take your time,” Myer says. “That’s called balance processing, and it means you don’t fester over little decisions and you don’t make hasty calls on important decisions.”

Finally, your team needs to see that you’re self aware; that you understand your strengths, weaknesses, and impact. Taken together, “Those skills are what’s called an authentic foundation,” Myer says.

Great leaders are great motivators

When it comes to motivation, “one important tool at your disposal as a leader is helping people have clarity about their role in the business and how you will work with them,” Myer says. Everyone has questions of their leaders including “What does success look like for my role? How are we going to communicate? What will get me recognition, a raise, or a promotion? You can go a long way in building trust with your team members if you have honest conversations that help them understand the agreements you are making together.

Another tool in your kit? Individualizing your leadership. No two people are alike so you shouldn’t treat all employees the same in terms of how you motivate them. “Take the time to understand the goals of your team members, what motivates them, and what ‘hot buttons’ they have, and you can avoid them, that could impact trust,” Myer says. “Don’t take a cookie cutter approach to motivation. Understand their individual interests, skills they want to develop, and where they want to go both in their lives and their professional careers.

Remember too, that you motivational style should fit your personality. “You don’t need to have an outward, ‘charge the hill!’ kind of personality,” Myer says. “You can motivate people quietly as long as you walk the talk and act as a role model.”

Key leadership mistakes to avoid

Myer has noticed a few missteps that entrepreneurs are prone to. First, “they don’t sufficiently recognize that they are on a learning curve as a leader/motivator and as a result, don’t invest enough time and energy toward developing their skills or relationships with advisors who can help them,” Myer says.

The other key mistake Myer often sees is a lack of self-awareness. “When you’re in a leadership role, people look at you differently and they notice the little things,” Myer says. “Non-verbal behavior, for example. They can pick up on things that you don’t realize you’re communicating. So you have to communicate a lot to make sure they understand your message or don’t misinterpret things. If you don’t, your employees will look at little things and think they’re much more significant than they are.”

Finally, “be humble,” Myer says. “It’s about being honest when you don’t know the answer and saying, ‘I don’t know, but let’s figure it out.”

Here are few leadership books that Myers recommends to help you on your journey to becoming a great leader:

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Drive by Daniel Pink

Startup Leadership by Derek Lidow

The Founder’s Dilemma by Noam Wasserman

Learn more about fueling your personal development as an entrepreneur.

This post is based on content from a WeWork Labs programming session.

Interested in connecting directly with this mentor? Ask your Labs Manager for help.

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