Want to be a great leader? Focus on the followers

Great leaders wouldn’t exist without inspiring people to follow them. Here, Kolmeo Chief Executive Officer Scott Bateman explains the two questions you must ask yourself before deciding whether your leader is someone you want to follow.

“Your business is failing, and your people think you’re a joke.”

I had just walked into the office to meet my new manager when she smacked me in the face with this opening line.

I was in banking at the time, and my new boss was a renowned heavy-hitter from Westpac’s upper echelons, known for her fierce ‘no bullshit’ style, and she’d been brought in to address some serious gaps in our business at the time.

I sat down, terrified, and she continued. 

“You need to pull your head out of your arse and establish some credibility,” she told me.

“They’re not performing, and you’re too busy trying to be their friend.

“They have friends, and they have family, they don’t need you for that.

“There is one role in this world that only you can fill, and it’s to make them successful.

“That’s your job. If they need help, help them. If they need clearer expectations, set them.

“But do your job.”

I’ve had the pleasure of studying leadership at some of the best business schools in the world, under some of the topic’s most acclaimed professors.

Yet, the person who most shaped my view on what makes a great leader was someone who did the opposite of much of what they teach (she was right, by the way).

And that’s the problem with trying to be a better leader – there is so much written on the topic, much of it contradictory, that we often end up not knowing how to improve despite the extra effort we focus on it. 

So, I want to simplify it for you as much as possible, summarising a couple of the most important things I’ve found during a 25-year career and a crazy amount of study on the topic. 

If you want to know what makes a great leader, you first need to focus on why people follow because contrary to the ‘everyone’s a leader’ mantra, there is no such thing as a leader without a follower.

This may sound like a trivial thing, but take a moment to pause and think about why any of us would willingly take the direction of others and trust that things will work out better than if we had just carved our own path.

The answer is simple.

We follow people we think will help us meet our own goals better than we could without their help.

If I want to be rich, they will help me make more money than I could without them.

If I want to progress through a company’s ranks, they will develop me or connect me to the people I need to know.

If I want to feel valued, they will help me have an impact and celebrate it when I do. 

What we’re driven by is largely irrelevant, as this is different for everyone.

What matters is that leaders make it clear that they understand their people’s goals and will help them go after those goals. 

Consequently, there are two questions we ask our leaders without ever really saying them out loud: 

  1. Does this person know what matters to me? 
  2. Can they help me achieve my goals better than I could alone? 

If you reflect on times when you’ve lost confidence in your leader, the chances are that upon reflection, one of these two things has gone wrong at some critical moment.

If you’ve failed to be inspired by your new boss, then I’d bet that they have never indicated that they know what matters to you, or you’ve doubted their ability to help you get it. 

If you lead people right now and you’re having challenges with your team, I’d hazard a guess that when you look in the mirror, you’ll find that you may not have done enough (or be doing enough) to answer those two questions for them. 

Real estate sales teams often feel like their boss is too focused on their own success and not that of their agents.

In property management, PMs often complain that someone was promoted who has less experience or knows less than them about legislation.

The problem is the same – I can do this better without you, so why would I look to you to make decisions which affect me? 

So, what to do? 

The importance of building trust cannot be overstated.

Be humble and be vulnerable but make the first move.

Help them get to know you, warts and all, to help them feel safe in being more open about what they’re looking for and why it matters. 

I run an exercise with my teams where we draw our life journey on a page, calling out the moments that have been important to us, like the death of a loved one, weddings, divorces, big promotions and other formative life events.

It’s a terrific way to learn more about each other in a few minutes and makes everyone feel safe to get pretty deep if needed.

It’s a good tool for answering the first question about really knowing your team members and what matters to them. 

For the second question, it’s about the work you do together to keep them moving towards their goal.

Establish a regular rhythm for catching up and be clear about what you are working on together and how that aligns with what matters to them.

If they’re motivated by money, the chat is about maximising how much they can earn.

If career progression floats their boat, then the same conversation is skewed towards how success now enables that next role they dream of.

In every catch up I have with people who report to me, my final question is always the same – is there anything I can do differently to better support you?

It’ll feel weird at first, but I promise you it’s one of the most valuable questions you can ask if you do it every time. 

Finally, deep down, I think we all want to be better leaders, but that often sends us down the path of thinking about how others see us.

One of the best bits of advice I ever received was that your leadership is not about how people feel about you when they are with you.

It’s about how they feel about themselves when they are with you.

Make sure every interaction with your team is about helping them feel capable, empowered and celebrated, and you’re going to have an unbeatable team. 

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Scott Bateman

Scott Bateman is the CEO of Kolmeo. For more information visit