Think about every boss you’ve had since you were a kid, even including the parents of the kids you babysat, the owner of the greasy spoon where you waited tables, and the director of the camp where you were a counselor.

Were any of these bosses so inspiring that whenever they come to mind, you recall how much you wanted to be like them? What behaviors clued you in that these folks belong to a special category of successful leaders?

How to Spot a Good Leader

Whether they focus on the community, an institution, a cause, their values, or the very work itself, the most beloved leaders don’t operate out of their own self-interest or self-aggrandizement. Their teams have no fear of arbitrary punishment or attack; instead, their people strive never to let them down. These bosses don’t even have to be particularly social, like the proverbial leader you’d want to have a beer with, but they know how to build and maintain relationships, and under the right conditions, they usually have a sense of humor.

Successful leaders reduce both risk and fear for the people they lead. They know there’s rarely any need to play at being the Alpha by strutting, bellowing, or taking all the best bits and leaving only crumbs for others.

Rather, they create a sense of security by making it clear that they know where they’re going — and that they’re committed to bringing the organization and its constituents along with them. They step back to look at the big picture without losing sight of current details; they generate alternatives at the proper level and in the appropriate areas. They take the blame when something goes wrong, and they’re comfortable shouldering the responsibility.

4 Steps to Being a Better Leader

Here are some of the things you may have seen your best bosses do — and that you may want to try for yourself:

  1. Approach people with full attention: Turning squarely to face them means you’re giving them your focus rather than withholding or trying to sidle away. Don’t declare your opinions first, interrupt, or cut others off. Ask, ask, and ask again to show you want their input. After they’ve finished speaking, restate their comments to show that you understood. And manage their expectations by giving them a practical sense of where you’re heading.
  2. Practice two kinds of acknowledgment: First, listen attentively to demonstrate interest, caring, and empathetic support for their humanity. Second, give explicit recognition, appreciation, and an occasional standing ovation to show that you value both their capabilities and their participation. Point out how and when others contribute, run interference for you, pick up the slack, take the heat, or experiment.
  3. Avoid huddling with colleagues you already know well. Instead, share yourself with everyone. If you’re any good, they’ll want you; if they don’t want you, you’ve probably demonstrated that you’re not up to the task — whether by omission or commission. You’ll learn more about what people actually want and need, and they’ll give you more in return.
  4. Give up the need to have all the answers. Instead, lead people to find their own, and then compare and contrast your ideas with theirs to come up with joint, robust decisions.

Above All Else, Know Thyself!

If you hope to manage others well, the true first step is to know and control yourself. It takes work, but it isn’t difficult.

Note how you’re feeling — not to parade it or explain it, but so that you can make it conscious rather than letting your emotional reactions bleed into your thoughts and actions. Remember, your goal is leadership, not your personal satisfaction. If you’re feeling driven and urgent, overly intense, or over-excited, check yourself for excessive ambitiousness, fear, or anger to prevent lashing out, imploding, or withdrawing.

But it’s not enough just to manage your own behavior. Be sure to hire people who also have a track record of self-awareness, acknowledging others, and interacting with empathy. And screen out those who don’t make room for others’ contributions — or who show preference for the folks who make them feel big.

Adopt these practices and intentions, and some day you may be the inspiring leader who comes to mind when your team members think of their best bosses.