4 steps to being a better leader

Knowing what you want, rewarding good work, setting expectations and building relationships will improve your leadership abilities

A friend who is a successful builder and developer recently told me the following story.

He had bought some properties he intended to fix up and sell at a profit, renting them out in the meantime. These houses were located in a part of the country that had been hit particularly hard by the recession, and labor was cheap and plentiful.

He wanted to hire a carpenter who could do the necessary work on the houses and also be on call for repairs while the properties were rented. People with these types of skills were numerous in that area, and he had many people respond to his ad for the job.

He carefully screened the applicants, including taking the time to go see actual work each of the finalists had done. Ultimately he selected one young man who did high-quality work. At the final interview, he asked the young man what he expected to be paid.

"Fifteen dollars an hour," replied the hopeful applicant.

My friend was taken aback.

Fair wages
"I'm not going to pay you $15 an hour," he replied. "I will pay you $25 an hour, and if I call you out after a normal work day, I expect you to charge me a $25 trip fee as well and round your time up the next hour. Understood?"

The young man nodded with excitement. This wage was considerably above the going rate for all-purpose carpenters in that area.

My friend continued. "But if I call you, I expect you to be there. I need you to be absolutely reliable. Trust is everything. Agreed?"

The young man nodded again.

"Your work is worth at least what I'll be paying you," my friend concluded. "Never settle for less than you're worth."

That interview took place almost five years ago. This carpenter has been one of my friend's most loyal and valuable employees and continues to work for him today.

4 steps
My friend is not an educated man. He knows little about management theory or leadership trends. But this example shows that he knows the most important lessons needed for successfully leading others.

First, know what you're looking for, and take your time in finding the right person for the job. In recent years in the fire service, hundreds or thousands of people often apply for a single position. Some fire departments feel that having many applicants who are at least superficially qualified means that no effort at recruitment is necessary.

But sometimes having too many good candidates can be as challenging as not having enough. How do you differentiate among those who look much the same on paper? It is always worth the time and effort to get to know potential candidates beyond just test results.

Second, recognize and reward good work. When it comes to hiring quality workers, you often get what you pay for. Good compensation and benefits are not just financial rewards. They build self-esteem and loyalty in those who are so recognized. 

But recognition goes far beyond just what people are paid. Giving people credit for their work, providing them with opportunities for training and development, and empowering them to make decisions on their own — all of these things are substantial rewards.

Third, set expectations that are clear, high, yet attainable. Most people feel good when they are trying hard and doing their best. They find satisfaction in meeting goals. They want to feel that they are really contributing, and will be loyal to those who give them the opportunity to be a meaningful part of a larger effort.

Goals and objectives should be specific and individuals should be empowered in how they find ways to meet them. Real leaders do not micromanage.

Finally, assume that working together is a relationship that must be attended to by all parties involved. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. We all have times in our lives when we are not at our best. If we feel that those we work with and for are committed to us for the long haul, all of us are likely to go the extra mile even against great odds.

Loyalty and commitment are priceless — you cannot buy them. But you can grow and nurture these things if you are willing to invest the time and resources. This is the kind of leadership you don't learn from a book.

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