Become a successful leader

In part one of our series on leadership, learn what it takes to succeed when you are in the spotlight.

“Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.”

— Kevin Kruse, Forbes

“Leadership involves: establishing a clear vision, sharing that vision with others so that they will follow willingly, providing the information, knowledge, and methods to realize that vision; and coordinating and balancing the conflicting interests of all members and stakeholders.”

In my experience, while these definitions are accurate, they don’t say what a successful leader is not. Successful leaders do not command, chastise, blame, or belittle others. They do not take all the credit for themselves or consider themselves better than others. They do not run from difficult situations or ignore wisdom.

Here are some example of what it takes to be a great leader.

Great leaders excel in two-way communication.

Great leaders speak with and write to others with a respectful tone and a desire to foster mutual understanding. They want others to understand their thoughts and ideas yet are willing to listen to criticism and feedback with an open mind. Great leaders communicate carefully, considering any unintended message or tone that could be heard or interpreted.

However, communication is more than just what we say or write. The most important part of communication is listening. This means actively listening to seek understanding of what the other person is saying. In a video on, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, said “If you want to stand out as a leader, a good place to begin is by listening.”

We have all been in the meetings where we listen to the person speaking and our mind immediately goes to how we want to respond or to what we can add to the conversation. We have also all spoken in meetings and saw people tune out and noticed they were no longer listening. In both cases, the speaking person doesn’t feel heard or validated. Good leaders not only want others to feel heard and validated, but they also want to listen to what the other person says with complete attention so they can truly consider what that person’s thoughts and perceptions could add to the conversation.

Great leaders have unique ways of thinking.

Great leaders approach people and problems in unique ways. They are servant leaders — willing to be less so others can be more, to jump in and do what needs to be done to achieve a goal. In our clinic, we foster the attitude and belief that no one is above any job, especially when it means taking good care of our patients and our co-workers. Sometimes, this means that, as the leader, you shovel the snow or clean up the restroom. Even with their flexible ways of thinking, successful leaders solve problems while keeping the problem-solving process consistent:

  1. Clearly identify the problem.
  2. Consider multiple solutions. This is where flexibility comes in, as you may have never considered some of the likely solutions that come from others.
  3. Weigh the solutions for the best possible outcome. These potential outcomes should be based on data and experience and have the least amount of unintended consequences.
  4. Make the decision.
  5. Develop and deploy an action plan. The final and most crucial step. Successful leaders must make sure the solution is actually solving the clearly identified problem. They continue to evaluate, ask others to give input and feedback and are flexible if they need to make adjustments. Also, successful leaders encourage and reward those who work toward the solution. They get input at each step and, when using input from someone, give credit to that person.
  6. Re-evaluate the decision. After a set period of time, make sure that the solution and action have the desired effect.

We are implementing a cultural DNA transformation in our practice. Historically, our practice focused too often on the negative instead of celebrating and rewarding the success and the positive behaviors and outcomes. Also, we lacked a culture where all staff were held accountable to clear expectations of behavior toward each other and patients.

To transform our DNA, our director team challenged our department managers and leads to garner feedback from each employee. We had two evenings of what we called “pod meetings,” where people from every department gathered in groups of eight to 10. At the meetings, we rolled out the desire to transform the DNA of the practice and asked each person to give input on what they would be willing to do to be part of the transformation. At the end of the meetings, the leadership team put together a list of 10 statements that were common themes to create the new “double helix” of behavior for our entire staff. The statements included, “I will listen for understanding,” “I will communicate with and support my coworkers,” and “I will respect our patients’ time.”

Each week, the leadership team focuses on one of the statements and asks everyone in the practice to catch someone doing right and report it to them. The ideas came from our staff, the execution has been through our leadership with guidance from our directors, and the feedback has been positive. While we are still in the transition phase, the leadership team has shown the entire practice what successful leadership looks like.

Great leaders accept criticism and admit failures.

Successful leaders accept and admit when they are wrong. “Know-it-all” personalities do not attract invested followers. Being a great leader means looking for wisdom and guidance from others who are either on the road with you or have gone down the road before you. Guidance can often be in the form of feedback or criticism, both of which a leader should welcome and consider. If, as a leader, you are wrong, admitting so is a sign of strength of character; it also grants your followers permission to stretch their limits without fear of failure.

Most mistakes are our greatest learning opportunities if we admit we have made them, seek to learn from them, and do what is necessary to make things right.

Great leaders are mentally tough.

While one of the most rewarding positions, leadership also requires people to make the hard right choice instead of the popular choice, which means that others can or will be unhappy or disappointed. A leaders’ work is a balance between moving toward a goal and keeping employees and providers engaged. When things get tough, successful leaders are strong and resilient. They exhibit emotional intelligence and respond appropriately to criticisms and dislike. This is one of my areas of greatest struggle. I become very passionate about the items that I work on and tend to over-personalize the outcome. This has led me to initially respond to feedback defensively instead of welcoming it as a growth opportunity. Usually, I can apologize for becoming defensive, listen and apply the feedback, and thank those who were passionate enough to speak up.

As someone who makes decisions in our practice, I have to make some hard choices and, despite efforts to explain the choices, some within the practices can feel unhappy or demoralized. One example was a change in workflows. The clinic was working up patients from beginning to end by the same technician, regardless of the complexity of the patient pathology. Our highly skilled technicians were working up patients for well vision exams instead of using their advanced skills on the more complex patients. We presented an alternative workflow, and the technicians and providers provided feedback. The workflow relied on entry-level technicians to do a good portion of the basic intake testing, leaving the complex testing to our advanced technicians. While logically it makes sense, the transition has been hard on many employees. Some felt they were no longer valued as much, while others felt that what they had known and done for years was no longer their job. While these feelings were completely understandable and valid, my choice was to keep working with the model because it was the right choice for the practice to maintain high quality, high volumes, and treat complex patients with advanced level technicians.

In addition to being resilient, successful leaders also need to exhibit perseverance and determination. Giving up when things get too hard indicates that you are a fair-weather leader who only wants to be considered the leader when things go well. Being a successful leader requires true grit and desire when things get tough. It often requires self sacrifices for little reward or recognition other than knowing that they didn’t give up. Being a great leader is not a sprint — it is a marathon that requires mental stamina, belief in one-self’s ability to persevere and the desire to never quit.

Great leaders define success in terms of their people

While the business world and financial world consider someone a great leader if profits are exceptional regardless of the costs, great leaders consider profits a part of the success equation. Great leaders also see success when people grow, gain new understanding and have light-bulb moments. They invest in people and see them as not a means to an end but as people. The act of developing people is considered success by great leaders. Seeing someone take the risk, fail, and get back up again is success. When they have breakthroughs, the spotlight is on that other person, not the leader.


If you desire to be a successful leader, find someone whose leadership you admire — either personally or in business — and study that person. If possible, ask the person to mentor and coach you. If you admire a historical figure, read all you can about who they were and how. Also, never stop improving. Successful leaders know the work is never done. OP