One thing savvy leaders learn pretty early in their careers is that leadership is not about self-aggrandizement. It is more about enabling those around them and putting them into positions from which they can succeed.
Key to that mindset is the ability to make others around them better. Two basketball legends mastered this better than most: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. As a point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson was the master of dishing the ball to an open man to make a basket. Larry Bird as a forward for the rival Boston Celtics was similarly team oriented.
You don't have to look to the NBA for similar stories. The team leader in the seafood department of my local Whole Foods embodies this ethos. The other day I asked him about a power failure that had swept through out neighborhood and he replied, "The team really did a great job. They got all of the fish off the counter and into the cooler. We didn't lose anything." He said nothing about himself; only the team's timely response. Knowing this manager as I do, it is clear that he has made his fish-mates better.
So just how does a leader make others better? Let me offer four suggestions.
1. Affirm their worth. Let people know they are important and necessary to the job at hand. Obvious, of course! But I cannot tell you the number of times employees have told me they have no idea what their boss thinks of their performance because he or she has never told them. Such managers are operating under the old school rules that say telling an employee he is doing a good job is counter-productive. Just the opposite. It motivates good people to leave.
2. Challenge them. Give people the opportunity to excel. Doing a job is one thing; delivering superior results is another. Give them the support they need to do the job and let them go. Note I wrote "support" - not resources. The latter may not be forthcoming due to scarcity but the former must never be withheld. Even when the employee may fail, the manager needs to provide support.
3. Inspire them. Good managers coach their employees; great ones inspire their direct reports. How? First, they set high standards of excellence. They push for the achievement of stretch goals. Next, they hold themselves accountable for delivering on those standards. Such leaders take pride not in their own achievements but rather in what the team accomplishes together.
4. Know when to claim center stage. There are times, however, when leaders need to step the fore. Chick Hearn the long-time announcer for the rival Lakers, was fond of saying that Bird would not let you lose. He would carry the team on his back, as would Magic. Likewise, in the corporate world, the top execs make the tough calls. These are the decisions that set the direction for the enterprise. That's when a leader earns his pay grade.