Great leaders define the “what,” and leave the “how” up to the team.

Steve Kerr is the head coach of the Golden State Warriors. Over the last decade, he’s guided his team to five straight NBA finals, winning three of them. During that span, his team won an extraordinary 77% of their games. But while most people see stars like Steph Curry as the primary reason for the team’s success, and rightly so, they’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface is a foundation so durable and so ingrained in the team’s DNA that it allows the entire operation to run smoothly despite any internal or external adversity. Steve Kerr may not have had the spotlight squarely on him, but his fingerprints are all over the historic run of success the Warriors have had.

On the eve of Super Bowl LV, it’s only fitting to study the coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bruce Arians. He’s one of the oldest coaches in the NFL. He’s a two-time NFL Coach of the Year. He’s won 62% of his games, which easily ranks among the top 30 coaches in NFL history, and yet he’s never won a Super Bowl as a head coach (see update). Tom Brady shows up on the scene, and suddenly Arians is on the brink of winning his first championship. Like Steph Curry, Tom Brady will get all the credit for his team’s success. But under the surface, Bruce Arians has set the perfect conditions for their success.

The leadership styles of Kerr and Arians are unlike most leaders I’ve ever studied. They’re firm, but respectful. They inspire confidence, not fear. They lead by example, not just though words. They’re grounded in principle, and let the players take care of the rest. In almost every way, Kerr and Arians are the ideal leaders. And although they are different people in different sports, the key to their success is hidden in something Arians recently said in an interview, “I allow him (Tom Brady) to be himself…I allow him to coach. I just sit back sometimes and watch.” Your initial reaction to this statement might be “must be nice.” But look closer, and that is all you need to know about great leadership.

Hearken back to my definition of what the goal of leadership should be:

…to move individuals as a cohesive unit towards a clear and unified purpose, all the while bringing out the best in each by training and mentoring them until they themselves are suited to be leaders.”

from Want to be an Effective Leader? Get a Dog.

Great leaders want their subordinates to be better than them. Great leaders are great at identifying specific strengths in individuals and empowering them to do what they do best. Great leaders are okay with taking the blame for failures and giving the credit to those who make success happen. Where most leaders go wrong is in trying to micromanage. When you dig your heels in and try to impose your will on the team, you strangle away their authenticity. You prevent them from working at their full potential. If they are forced to operate your way, it creates space between you and them, and it plants the seeds for distrust and resentment.

Instead, when your subordinates object to how something is done, be grounded. Open up and listen to them. Ask how they would approach the problem. Allow them to formulate their own methodology. Even if you don’t think it’s as effective as what you would do, let them execute it anyway. Empower them to own the process. When their decisions, applied to your framework, succeed, they’ll have bought in to the vision you set. When their decisions fail, they will be more willing to come to you for direction.

When I started at the restaurant, the manager who was training me was a dictator. The employees hated him. They didn’t trust him. And because of that, they did the bare minimum just to not get fired. He didn’t listen to his employees. Instead, he tried to micromanage and make sure everything was done his way. When his methods inevitably failed, he blamed the employees. He was a master class for what not to do as a leader. I learned more about leadership by doing the exact opposite of him than from anyone else in my career, and I thank him for that. But the way he treated his employees was a tragedy. And the fact that most “leaders” in this world operate similar to him is the biggest tragedy of all.

But that’s why great leaders like Steve Kerr and Bruce Arians stand out. They define the “what,” and leave the “how” up to the team. They are grounded in principle, truth, and trust. But they don’t dig their heels in on methodology or ideology. They’re focused less on who is right and more on what is right. By being a facilitator, not a dictator, it has allowed their organizations to reach the pinnacle of their profession.

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