What It Means to Be a Leader, 11 Tips


I don’t often write about the business side of my life on this blog. Maybe it’s because when I grew up, business and the kitchen were one and the same, and I’ve wanted to separate them a bit. I used to wish for a lifestyle in which home was home, business was business.

But the truth is, they mix all the time, and one of my goals this year is to better integrate the many different pieces that make up me—(CEO, mother, cook, gardener, writer, and so forth.) The great news is, I’ve just finished up a very successful year from a business standpoint—a year when I believe I’ve earned the right to look back a bit and communicate what I’ve learned.

So today I’m going to share 11 leadership tips I’ve come upon the hard way—because there’s only one way to leadership, and that’s the hard way. Whether you’re running a business or a department, being a parent, or leading an adventurous expedition, the following advice can help you be a better leader…

  1. You need to see things other people aren’t willing to see yet. This is a tough one. We’ve all done it—seen things that aren’t what we want to see. Most people are great at ignoring and pretending they haven’t seen. Leaders need to really see things, acknowledge them, and then adapt and respond to them—and try to convince their teams that it’s important to see them, too. Hard, but not impossible. Often accompanied by periods when teams deny, belittle, and exhibit passive-aggressive behavior to justify denial. But a real leader needs to see the truth and not waver.
  2. People are waiting for you to make the tough decisions. If you’re the leader, look around the room at your team. Yes, they are looking at you and waiting with bated breath to hear what your decision is. They might hem and haw, but in their deepest hearts they want you to make those tough decisions. We all learn by watching, and they are watching you to see how you do it.
  3. You take responsibility and accountability for everything in your domain. Everything. Even if it’s not your fault. Even if you didn’t do it. Even if it’s embarrassing. You don’t “throw anyone under the bus.” You own it, deal with it and move on. We all make mistakes and it’s not the end of the world.
  4. Your job is not to be loved, but to do the right thing. Too many times our desire to be liked and loved causes us to delay making tough decisions, even though we know they need to be made. It can be hard to separate those feelings of neediness from the need to get things done, but things must get done.
  5. Your job is to do the right thing, with love. There is a place for love in the life of a leader. In fact, that place is everywhere and with everything and everybody. No matter what you do, it’s always better done with love. But still, remember #4, and don’t think that doing things with love means needing to feel loved in return. You still need to do the right thing, just in the right way.
  6. If you don’t believe in what you are doing, no one else will either. People often think that leadership is about that corner office, the big paycheck, the nice car, perks, ego, and such. Nothing could be further from the truth. Real leadership is about creating a vision in your heart and mind and bringing the energy of manifestation to that vision so that others can see and believe in it too. That’s why…
  7. You NEED to believe. Call it passion, call it vision, call it power—it’s really the power of believing in what you’re doing that enables you to accomplish your goals. I see it all the time. There are many people in positions of power who no longer believe in what they are doing, and as a result, the whole organization loses faith.
  8. But you also need contingency plans. Surprises happen, usually daily. What’s your backup plan? Doing scenario planning in your mind is helpful. But don’t overdo it, because you might become distracted from your initial goal. Try to keep your vision clear and strong, but be prepared to adapt quickly.
  9. Sacrifice and long hours don’t really matter, results matter. This is a tough one for many people to swallow because it’s so counter to our culture. The whole idea of “face time” and long hours and burnout are badges of honor in the traditional workplace. With digital tools, we have more flexibility than ever, but it’s still the same obsession. Hard work and sacrifice don’t automatically lead to success; more often, it’s creative ideas, strategic intelligence, and innovation that lead to real advancement. Trust me, those things don’t happen without having a good night’s sleep, being well fed, and for some strange reason…taking long showers.
  10. Get out of your comfort zone, and do new things and encourage your teams to do so, too, because that’s where creative ideas, strategic intelligence, and innovation come from. Travel. Learn. Talk to people. Go food shopping. (I always call shopping “market research,” since while you’re there you see firsthand what people are doing and how they’re responding to things.) If you do the same things over and over again, you’re going to get either the same results or slightly worse results over time. The only way to get new ideas is to do new things.
  11. Listen and observe. If you can quiet your own mind and focus your eyes, usually the answers are there to be seen and heard. Leadership isn’t about just talking and making speeches and communicating—it’s about watching, sitting with people, and truly hearing them—then taking it all in and going back to #1 to be willing to see things that other people aren’t yet willing to see.

Good luck. It won’t always be fun, but it will be worth it.


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8 Responses to What It Means to Be a Leader, 11 Tips

  1. Rob Sayre March 10, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    Thanks Maria. These are very timely insights in our evolving workplace and world.

  2. Danika Carter March 10, 2014 at 9:33 am #

    Love this. I both want to be this type of leader and work for this type of leader.

  3. Donna in Delaware March 10, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    BIG list! All true! Numbers 1, 8, 10, & 11 are most important. People like to keep their head buried in the sand, but being a realist is so important in leadership. Hoping that things will get better, or go away, is not being a good and responsible leader. This is what your team usually think and feel. Nevertheless, they too, have a responsibility to be good leaders for those under them, and not shove problems under the carpet, as so happens many times. Don’t shield the boss, let the boss help, so that you all can benefit in the end.

  4. Alice Green March 10, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    Maria, reading your 11 tips makes me think of a quote I keep by my computer and read so often. The title is: The Courage of Integrity, “The highest courage is to dare to be yourself in the face of adversity. Choosing right over wrong, ethics over inconvenience, and truth over popularity….these are the choices that measure your life. Travel the path of integrity without looking back, for there is never a wrong time to do the right thing.” Author Unknown. This quote has helped me to make choices I might have been afraid to make. After reading your tips for what it means to be a leader, it makes me feel that you are not just a good leader, but really an embodiment of someone who has the courage of integrity! That isn’t an easy quality to live up to, but it sure makes life worth the effort. Thanks for making the effort and for being true to yourself!

  5. Sue March 10, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    As always, inspired by what you see and know. Wish more leaders took your lead.

    There is nothing more discouraging than implementing these leadership behaviors and having your own leadership as not recognizing, valuing, or even worse perceiving it as “being difficult”

    “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing or right doing, there’s a field…I’ll meet you there” –Rumi

  6. Rosalba March 11, 2014 at 10:02 am #

    Maria, so well said, as usual!
    You are a great leader!
    And that’s why all you do leads to success.
    Miss you!

  7. Julia Snyder March 13, 2014 at 5:35 pm #

    Fantastic list! Recently I have come to see how important being healthy is to being a great leader. If you don’t feel 100% then you can’t work at that level. I recently read a brilliant short read by David Silverstein called Become an Elite Mental Athlete, it just opened my eyes to the fact that leadership is not just about leading at work, you have to live it 24 hours a day. Eat right, sleep enough, ect. davesdots is his site, I recommend this as we just don’t really realize how much these small things affect our lives and work.

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