What is great leadership?

  • Smarts?
  • Charisma?
  • Strategic thinking?
  • Financial accomplishment?
  • Enthusiasm?

Those things can contribute to someone being a great leader, but alone are not enough.

There are many good books on leadership, but my greatest insights about leadership come from the successful CEOs that I get to witness in action – they all have things in common: They create a winning work environment where people grow because they feel good and bad.

Simple isn’t it? Grow talent by making them feel good (winning) and bad (tough lessons).

The best way I can think of this is “Joy and Tension”.

Joy best captures the feeling someone has when they win and/or get recognized for doing something well. Tension is the feeling that some person gets inside when they fail to deliver as expected or believe they disappointed their leader or colleagues.

The highest performing people I see thrive on the combination of joy & tension – they get better & more resilient because the best leaders that I’ve seen have mastered this and it shows in the growth of their team & business.

Let’s break this down…

What if a leader only creates joy & no tension? Well, their people will feel comfortable in their roles and overtime their performance becomes mediocre. It’s not that they are bad people, the environment did not create enough tension to challenge them & fire them up to keep upgrading their abilities. Just think of a race horse that always competes against slower horses…it can slow down & still win…overtime that horse will run more slowly.

On the other side of the equation, imagine a leader that did not create any joy (feeling good) but all tension.

There are some very rare “A” players that can thrive in this kind of environment but not many.

Usually in this situation, performance will wane over time as well because the team will emotionally disengage and say things like “They’re never happy no matter what I do…why bother?”

The problem here is there is nothing on the relational bank account to connect the team to the leader. The idea of the relational bank account is that you make deposits when you create feelings of joy & withdrawals when you create tension.

Just like with a bank account, you can’t withdraw cash that isn’t there! And, if you have a line of credit on that account, you can draw on it but still have to pay interest (joy). If you keep withdrawing without making any payments/deposits, sooner or later the bank will send you to collections – the employee will end the relationship.

The best leaders understand these dynamics & manage their accounts very well.

To be crystal clear, there are many ways of creating joy & tension and the best ones are not always words coming from the CEO or leader’s mouth. The ideal environment is a combination of:

  • Communication from the CEO/leader
  • Transparency of performance with the team (visible KPIs, Rocks & financial performance as in the Rockefeller Habits)
  • Internally knowing when you have performed or not
  • 3600 feedback from peers, direct reports & your managers
  • Being give more challenging projects & the opportunity to sink or swim

The key here is that high performing people continue to thrive in a work environment where there is joy and tension…they fade where there is not.