Summer 2014

5 ways to be a better leader

Think you're born to follow? Just wait

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Jonathan Cohen
Shelley Dionne, MBA '94, PhD '98

Whether you’re a recent college graduate starting a new job, someone with an established career who wants to inspire others to greatness or a parent heading the PTA for the first time, improving your leadership skills can dramatically affect your performance and the results you get from your team.

Shelley D. Dionne, MBA ’94, PhD ’98, associate professor in the School of Management and associate director of the University’s Center for Leadership Studies, shares the following tips anyone can use to become a better leader, both in the business world and in the community:

Help everyone on your team grow and develop

“The most important thing you have to do is understand you have an obligation to develop all your followers,” Dionne says.

Learn who they are and what is important to them, she says. What are their needs? How can you help them better communicate their ideas? How can you assist in their growth and development? “Come in listening. Get input. Share ideas. That investment creates a more long-term commitment from people. That investment is building the team.”

Good leaders spend most of their days serving as role models, building relationships and helping others improve their skills, Dionne says. “Leadership is about reading people well and understanding them maybe better than they understand themselves.”

While it’s easy to gravitate toward the enthusiastic members of your team, “commit to develop every follower, including the people you don’t have the best relationship with,” she says.

Encourage an environment where feedback is important

“Some people come in like a bull, and they dominate. Some won’t accept others’ ideas because it wasn’t their idea,” Dionne says.

But good leaders know they must serve as an example of how to ask for and receive feedback, she says.

Say you just had a big fundraiser for the PTA. Ask your followers what they liked, what they didn’t and what could be done better next time. Then listen to the suggestions and be open to receiving their ideas. “That feedback is a learning opportunity for everyone,” Dionne says. “You’re setting the tone that you’re focused on learning, too.”

Treat people fairly and with integrity

“That doesn’t mean equally,” Dionne says. “I don’t have to give everyone the same treatment, but I have to treat everyone fairly.”

People have different needs and abilities. Everyone doesn’t necessarily deserve the same raise, she says.

But create an open learning environment in which you’re communicating the reasoning behind your decisions — the process is transparent and there is honest dialogue. “We may not always agree, but we all know where we stand,” Dionne says.

Demonstrate a resilient and optimistic outlook

“No leader gets the ‘yes, yes, yes’ throughout her career,” Dionne says. “Life isn’t fair. But it’s the way you then handle that setback in front of your followers that’s important.”

Railing against the system and administration is one approach people take after encountering a setback, she says. Instead, try telling your team you haven’t forgotten their good ideas, but “we’re going to try a different way.”  Doing so sets a tone of optimism and resilience, and serves as a model for how others can approach the challenge, Dionne says.

“That’s really important, especially for managing through uncertainty.”

Commit to learning something every day


“Leading is developing, and developing is learning,” Dionne says.

Sometimes it’s discovering something big. Sometimes it’s learning about another person’s culture or perspective. Again, it sets the tone that learning and growing are important, she says.
“It’s hard to get stale when you’re thirsting for knowledge.”