How To Be A Supportive Leader


At the beginning of last year McKinsey & Company published a study which found that four types of behavior accounted for 89 percent of leadership effectiveness. It was by no means a limited sample: They spoke to almost 200,000 people in across 80 organizations in different countries and industries. Across all of this diversity, they found a very strong relationship between high-quality leadership teams and these traits:

McKinsey Decoding Leadership


The study landed in my inbox again at the beginning of this year via a friend. Reflecting on it a year later, even among the four, there was one behavior that stood out over all the others. And it wasn’t just because it happened to be top of the list.

What does it mean to be a supportive leader?

Being supportive isn’t the first trait that comes to mind when we think about leadership. (We wrote about another overlooked leadership quality here). According to the study:

Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges.

Being a supportive leader requires both an acute awareness of what’s going on in your team at all times and a strong ability to empathize with those around you. The challenge is that these are both behaviors that need to be switched on the whole time. It differs from others like vision-setting or effective problem-solving which are focused around set points-in-time.

So what are some practices you can use to be a supportive leader? And can you integrate them into your working routine?

Stay in touch

We know that always being aware of what’s going on in your team is a prerequisite to being a supportive leader, the trick is to find easy ways to keep connected. Try implementing simple systems for collecting feedback and team tracking progress that can run in the background.

There are hundreds of tools to track team progress, many of which we have written about in the past (take a look at idonethis). There are also many ways to collect feedback from your team. JobVibe gives you access to automated weekly feedback; every Friday your team is asked to give their opinion on what’s going well and what’s not going so well. Some weeks, all you need to do is check in on the results and acknowledge the feedback. In others, your team will raise issues. When that happens you can jump in and help out straight away.

Get your hands dirty

If the second prerequisite is empathy then there’s no better way to build this skill than by putting yourself in your team’s shoes. Even if you’ve made your way up the company and have already done their role in past, it’s worth giving yourself frequent reminders by getting stuck into day-to-day work.

Do this and you’ll see first-hand the challenges people in your team face, you’ll be better placed to help them improve the way they work and to support them when issues come up.

The worst thing a CEO can do is fail to understand the work that the employee at the lowest rung of their business is doing. – Monique Tatum, CEO of Beautiful Planning Marketing & PR.


Unite the team

With greater awareness and empathy you’ll be in a good position to spot any signs of tension in the team. It’s your job to help the people involved work it out. Niggles between teammates can seem small in isolation, but over time they waste a lot of energy and can end up poisoning relationships across the whole team.

Supportive leaders encourage open communication, do everything they can to make sure everyone feels like they’re part of the team and that no-one feels alienated.

Build support systems

Of course, as the manager and leader, your team will look to you first for support. But what better way to be a supportive leader than to coach your team on how to support each other. Start a buddy system, encourage people to shadow another team member; however you do it, if you can help everyone in the team build awareness and empathy then you’ll be on your way to creating one happy, well-supported team.

Tim Mullen

Tim is Co-Founder and Head of Customer Experience at Jobvibe. We help teams work better together. Jobvibe is a simple, smart mobile platform to gather real-time feedback from your team, openly discuss results and improve the way you work together.