How to be a great leader - with Emma DeAtley

How to be a great leader - with Emma DeAtley


Being a great leader is simple. That's probably why its so hard for some people.

I’ve had some great leaders in my life. Some have taught me how to lead, and others have taught me how I never want to lead.

This past summer my team got our first intern. I didn’t apply for my team to participate in the intern program because we wanted inexpensive labor. I applied because I love teaching people. I feel like I’ve led a pretty interesting life, both personally and professionally, so I enjoy sharing all that I’ve learned in the process. Plus, by having one of my team members manage the intern I have been able to see what type of leader they would be. It’s a win for everyone involved.

I didn’t have a lot of high expectations going into the hiring process. My hiring style has always been to focus more on the intangibles a person offers, rather than their experience. Especially with young professionals. My theory has always been that I can teach them the skills they need but don’t yet have. But, I can’t teach them the intangible traits that will lead to success. Things like nature curiosity, hustle, grit, etc.

I first developed this approach when I hired Hannah to run the Marketing department at the bank where I was Chief Lending Officer. She was young and the experience she had on paper didn’t easily point to being a high performer. But, during the interview process, she showed a lot of the traits that I respected. More than anything she was hungry for the role and was clearly coachable. Within six months of joining my team, I knew she was going to be a fantastic hire.

Because of the results with Hannah, I’ve looked for similar characteristics and traits in the hires I have made since then. Virtually every time has worked out really well.

When offered the intern rule to Emma, I was optimistically cautious that she would also turn out to be a great hire. It didn’t take long for me to realize that would be the case. In fact, by the end of her internship, I was actively talking to her about returning to work for me when she graduated the following year.

About a month ago I got to reconnect with Emma when she asked to interview me for a school project she was doing on leadership. I happily accepted. Mostly so I could keep recruiting her. 😉

Her questions centered around 1) my path to leadership; 2) how I learned to be a leader; and 3) what makes a great leader.

I’m going to share my answers with you. But, before we get to that I wanted to ask Emma, herself, to share with you the results of her project.

Emma, take it away…

Hi, I’m Emma DeAtley, a college senior majoring in economics at Oklahoma State University. I had the pleasure of working as an intern on Jonathan’s team this past summer and when I asked him if I could interview him for one of my school projects on “what it means to be a leader?” he graciously agreed. Here are 3 leadership thoughts that stemmed from my project and my conversation with Jonathan…Enjoy!

Leaders don’t have the answers

I came across this tweet a few years ago that read: “College: where everyone is smarter than you except the 3 people in your group project.” This a funny sentiment considering the frequent imposter syndrome many students experience only to have it dissipate when you get into a group project and realize that everyone else is just like you trying to fake it ‘til they make it. When it comes to working in a group, especially in college where there is often no pre-set, defined “boss” or “leader,” the default leader often becomes the person with the most confidence–the one who seems like they have the answers. 

But upon reflecting on the best leaders I have encountered, whether that be former bosses, mentors, peers, coaches, etc…the most impactful leaders–the ones with the strongest team environment, morale, and results–were the leaders who acknowledged that they didn’t have all the right answers. Why is that? Not having the answers allows the team space to collaborate and come together to find the answers on their own and for members to come into their own and shine in their own unique way. 

I learned this first-hand in working for Jonathan. Over the summer, I observed as he led our team meetings and one thing that stood out to me (and he later told me was an intentional part of his leadership style) was that he never spoke first. He would kick off the meeting and state what we wanted to accomplish and then he’d get quiet and wait for someone to pipe up with an idea. Often, these meetings would start off sheepish and timid, but once someone threw an idea out there and another person jumped on it and added to it, the brainstorming ball was rolling. In my conversation with Jonathan for this project, one quote of his stood out to me. He said: “Bosses dictate. Leaders direct.” “Direct” means guiding and pointing the team forward instead of forging the path yourself and strapping your team along for the ride. In this way, leaders direct their team’s focus. They direct their team’s talents toward an objective. They direct their team’s path, their energy, and their ideas. And this difference between being directed vs. being dictated to is what builds team camaraderie. Team members can see the way that each member contributed toward charting a path and climbing the mountain together instead of being given a path and told not to stray from it. 

Leaders create change (in themselves first)Musk

We often hear about the Steve Jobs, the Elon Musk, the Jeff Bezos of the world and all their successes–their innovations, their bold strokes, the changes they made, the way they shook things up–but the difference between a visionary and a leader is that leaders create change in themselves first. Before changing the world around them, they look inward and ask what they can change about themselves first. The goal of this kind of self-awareness isn’t to change themselves so the world can stay the same, but to change themselves so that then they can change the world around them. 

In my conversation with Jonathan for this project, he shared the ways that his leadership style has evolved because of the times he stopped to ask himself “Is this the way I want things to be?” Recognizing times to check in on your life, whether that’s milestones, something that didn’t go as you planned, or even scheduling a regular monthly or yearly check-in to reflect on the ways you can change can make you a stronger leader with the ability to create change around you. 

For Jonathan, that looked like integrating more empathy into his leadership style after a health scare caused him to re-evaluate his life. For me right now, I’m taking this last year of college to challenge myself to say yes to things that scare me a bit (like writing this article) so that I can grow in resilience in the face of uncertain outcomes–a skill I know will benefit me as I go into the workforce. By challenging yourself to change the way you do things, the way you think about things, or the way you see the world, you are forming yourself into the kind of person who can adapt, who can harness their self-awareness, and who can create positive change around them. And that’s all a leader is–someone who directs change in others, in their team, in their company for the better. But it all comes by first creating change in yourself.

Leadership isn’t one-size-fits-all

If there were the perfect way to teach someone all the skills to be an effective leader, someone would be a millionaire by now for figuring that out (clearly that’s not me). There’s no one perfect way to teach someone to be a leader because there’s no one perfect way to be a leader. Leadership is a highly unique and personal skill. It’s not just a label. There can be people who are leaders who aren’t necessarily “in charge” of anyone and there can be people with the title of “boss” or “manager” who don’t necessarily know how to motivate and lead their team. 

One key lesson I learned about leadership in observing Jonathan as a boss and through my conversation with him for this project is that leadership style isn’t one-size-fits-all for the leader or the person they are leading. That means every person can have a different leadership style and every person they lead has a different way they need to be led. Developing a leadership style means not only figuring out how you feel at your best and most effective leading others but also gathering the tools needed to tailor your approach based on the person you are leading. Kind of like assembling a toolkit of leadership skills. Each person might require you to exercise different tools or skills but having a versatile toolkit and the wisdom to know what tool to use and when is something every leader should strive for. 

Can you see why I, Jonathan, may or may not have tried to get her to skip her senior year to stay working with my team? What a talent!

What makes a great leader

When Emma said she felt I was a good leader and asked me this question, I balked at it. I told her that with the type of people on my team it was easy to look like I was a good leader. But, I suppose the truth is that I have a knack for hiring great people. Some of that goes back to my hiring process. But, some of it comes back to a simple principle that I am just now learning to own as a leader.

Good leaders are authentic.

For me, as a leader, being authentic means building relationships with my team. In fact, in my “How to work with JP” letter that I share with every new hire one of the principles is that I believe business is personal. See #2 here. Or, you can check back here for the next article where I’ll be talking about using a similar document in your professional life.

Building relationships with your team also means that you put their needs first. See #1 in my doc. I tell my team members that they are ALWAYS my #1 priority. Full stop. I care about them and in return, I suspect, that is why they work so hard for me.

Maybe even being authentic isn’t the right way to express how to be a good leader.

Maybe it’s simpler.

Being a good leader is actually pretty easy. Which is why it's so hard for so many people.

It just requires being a good person.

Who is the best leader you have ever worked for? What made them so great?

Share that information on Twitter and tag me, @jmillspatrick. Even better, tag them!

I'd love to compare notes.