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Elon Musk Says Great Leaders Focus on This 1 Thing Before Everything Else

Without a strong foundation, leaders and their companies could crumble.

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BY David Brown - 02 Jun 2018

Elon Musk Says Great Leaders Focus on This 1 Thing Before Everything Else

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Anyone who's built a successful startup will tout their own magic recipe for how to grow a business, but what I've learned first-hand is it requires much more than having the right title, presenting the right ideas or even putting in the hard work.

Sure, it takes a mash-up of innate qualities to be a leader -- boldness, passion, imagination -- but it's also about having the right support systems in place. Elon Musk said good leaders should focus on their foundation first. But there's a fine line between being a strong, daring leader that motivates his or her team versus a leader whose intensity stifles their energy and creativity. The best leaders possess certain values that ultimately embolden teams to do their best work. And even better, these values can be taught!

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

A recent five-year study of 5,000 U.S. business professionals from UC Berkeley management professor, Morten Hansen, found that successful leaders are also good communicators who know how to simplify their message, needs and priorities.

But don't confuse being a good communicator with being a good talker. They are not one in the same. Great communicators speak confidently and from a place of knowledge, connecting to people's energy and aspirations. They also know when to listen, and do so peacefully, fully taking in and observing another person's words and feelings before reacting. This allows leaders to modify their message according to a specific situation, because communicating effectively is not about saying the right thing 100 percent of the time; it's about meeting the expectations and needs of the audiences being communicated to.

I always quote Einstein: "if you can't say it succinctly, you don't understand it well enough." When I edit docs or emails, it's always about paring back and pruning, not adding new stuff.

Keep Emotions in Check

Being an entrepreneur means never a dull a moment, especially in the early stages of building a business, when the ups and downs are extreme. One day, it's feeling the rush of excitement for what is being created; the next day, it's doom and gloom if things aren't happening the way they were expected to. And it's easy to let mistakes turn into overwhelming moments of guilt and shame, whereas achieving a win can quickly go to a business owner's head. That's why it's imperative for good leaders to understand early on how to control their emotions related to the business, whether positive or negative.

Leading a fast-company is not for the faint of heart, and there will be challenges and successes, most of the time not in equal quantities. Learning how to take those moments as they come, while knowing that this, too, shall pass, is critical to strong leadership -- it shows clear judgment and an even keel, and helps motivate employees to follow the same lead.

Celebrate Team Wins

Origin stories are great -- Marvel's making bank on them. And everyone loves the tale of a brilliant entrepreneur who picked himself up by his bootstraps and launched a successful business. But the reality is, whether it's a superhero story or the makings of a Fortune 500 company, success is almost always a collaborative effort. Leaders who publicly recognize and acknowledge the contributions of their entire team, rather than singling out the work of certain individuals or even themselves, are more likely to create an environment where employees feel appreciated and important to the overall success of the business.

Techstars alumni, SendGrid, has a great definition of their culture that speaks to this. They focus on the four Hs Happy, Hungry, Humble and Honest. Being positive, looking for solutions, learning from each other and valuing transparency are great ways to praise contributions and daily successes.

As intangible as leadership skills can be, the crux of being a good leader lies not just in inherent traits, like confidence and intelligence. It's about the learned behaviors of how to relate to people in a way that galvanizes them to produce great work and love what they do. Only then will a good leader become a great leader.

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