How to Be an Effective Leader: The Carnegie Method

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to learn how to be an effective leader? What communication skills can you learn to help you with this?

Learning how to be an effective leader takes a lot of practice. According to How to Win Friends and Influence People, communication is one of the most important parts of leadership.

Keep reading to find out how to be an effective leader and how to apply your skills.

How to Be an Effective Leader: Simple Communication Skills

There are many ways to learn how to be an effective leader, and many of those techniques start with communication skills.

1. Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.

This is one of the steps to learn how to be an effective leader. This can help you discover how to be a leader at work and in other areas of you life.

  • Giving unilateral feedback gives the impression of an overbearing, perfect overlord chastising a flawed underling. It diminishes the person’s importance.
  • Admitting your own mistakes shows that you recognize the task is difficult and the person’s mistakes are understandable; implicitly encourages the person to rise to your level; effaces your own importance to match that of your partner.
  • Adopt the genuine attitude that you are doing better primarily because you have considerably more experience, leading to high personal standards that are currently above others’ capabilities. 
    • This includes your relationship with entry-level employees and children. How can you expect a 10-year-old to make the same decisions you do at age 40? Did you do the same when you were 10?
  • Tactics for how to be a better leader
    • “You’ve made a mistake, but it’s no worse than many I have made. You were not born with judgment. That comes only with experience, and you are better than I was at your age.”
  • Examples:
    • A secretary was making regular spelling mistakes. The engineer she was working for had made a list of words he had trouble spelling. He went to her and said, “this word doesn’t look quite right. It’s a word I always have trouble with. That’s why I started this spelling book. (flip to the right page) Yes, here it is. I’m conscious of my spelling because people judge us by our letters.”
    • A father wanted his son to stop smoking, despite being a smoker himself. He explained how he started smoking at his age, how nicotine had gotten the best of him, and it was impossible for him to stop. His cough was irritating and his health had deteriorated.

2. Ask questions instead of giving orders.

Another way to learn how to be an effective leader is to ask questions instead of giving orders.

  • Asking questions has plentiful benefits:
    • It allows your partner to come to her own conclusions independently. People like their own ideas better.
    • It preserves agency, importance, and pride. Instead of following someone else’s orders, the person is now following her own. They have ownership in the path forward.
    • It stimulates the creativity of your partner. New better ideas might actually surface.
  • Tactics for how to be a better leader
    • “You might consider this.” “Do you think that would work?” “What do you think of this?”
    • When the solution is unclear to you, ask your staff.
    • [See the Socratic method chapter above.]
  • Examples
    • A manager of a manufacturing plant wanted to take a large order but wasn’t convinced they could service it in time. He asked his staff questions. “Is there anything we can do to handle this order? Can we think of different ways to process it?”

3. Let the other person save face.

  • People crave importance. If you bulldoze this importance away, the person will resent you and become more difficult to influence later. Let them preserve their pride even when receiving feedback.
  • The book doesn’t give clear directives on a general way of how to do this, but it centers around preserving the person’s pride and what they care about.
    • Acknowledge that mistakes are done out of momentary carelessness or inexperience, and not lack of ability.
    • If there is a misfit with a role, focus on the person’s other strengths and lift those up.
    • Express confidence publicly in the person who made the mistake, to preserve the person’s social bonds (and avoid making her toxic). Avoid embarrassing her publicly.
    • If letting people go, express that it was not due to the quality of their work, but the changing needs of the business. The business is rooting for them and believes in their potential.
  • Examples
    • When a key employee was demoted from department head, they gave him a new title: “Consulting Engineer.”
    • An employee made a mistake on a project that required redoing it. She presented, apologized for the error, and said she would have the report before the next meeting. Instead of criticizing her carelessness, the manager thanked her for her work; said it wasn’t an unusual error for a new project; expressed his faith in her and knew she had done her best; it was lack of experience and not ability that made up for the failure.

4. Praise every slightest improvement.

  • Praising every improvement inspires the other person to keep on improving.
    • [I’m bad at this. A fear I have is that praising someone gives them an early reward, preventing them from reaching the full goal. Similar: declaring your weight loss goals publicly is self-defeating, because you already gain some amount of the social recognition you crave. 
    • In reality, I should realize that people crave importance like food, and giving them a little will make them hunger for more.]
  • Look back on your life and remember moments where just a few words of praise sharply turned your entire future. You can have this impact on others.
  • Tactics for how to be a better leader
    • Give specific praise. Single out a specific accomplishment, instead of general flattering remarks. This makes your praise sound more sincere, and also forces you to find genuine points of appreciation.
    • Some relationships, especially parents and work, have evolved into a vicious cycle of yelling. The parent gives no praise, the child resists, the parent yells at the child, the child resists further, the parent yells more loudly to get any result. You must break out of this vicious cycle to build a virtuous cycle. 

5. Give the person a fine reputation to live up to.

This is one way to learn how to be a better leader at work.

  • People want to feel important. Being valued for certain traits or their reputation makes them feel important, and they will work to continue feeling important.
  • If you want to improve something about a person, act as though that trait were already one of her outstanding characteristics.
  • Tactics for how to be a successful leader
    • To an angry customer: “I have always admired you for your fairness and patience, and I you to apply those today. Please forgive us for our mistakes.”
    • To someone who’s rejected you: “I have respected your open-mindedness and and are big enough to change your mind if presented with new facts.”
    • Try this for people who are historically underappreciated – find a trait of theirs you want to emphasize. 
    • [If a person has a poor reputation for what you want to improve, reversing it may sound disingenuous. Instead, praise a related character trait the person prides, then obliquely connect it to the reputation. For instance, a person may be hard-working but make many careless mistakes – praise the diligence, and how by focusing hard, they can overcome their carelessness.]

6. Make the fault seem easy to correct.

Another way to learn how to be a better leader at work is to make any issues seem correctable.

  • If you tell someone they lack the talent and will never be good at something, you have removed interest and hope for improvement.
  • Instead, tell them they have the right talent and fundamentals, but just need to practice to get better. Make the steps easy to do.
  • Tactics fo how to be a successful leader
    • Connect it to something they’ve mastered in the past. “There’s nothing to it other than ___. You’ve done ___ before. X will be a cinch for you.”
  • Examples
    • Dance instructor to a poor dancer: “you have a natural sense of rhythm. You are a natural-born dancer.”
    • To Dale Carnegie on bridge, of which he knew nothing: “There’s nothing to bridge except memory and judgment. You’ve written articles on memory. Bridge is right up your alley.”

Learning how to be an effective leader takes time and practice. Remember to keep track of your interactions with others to learn how you communicate, and in what areas you need to improve. By practice and careful thought, this is how you can discover how to be a successful leader.

How to Be an Effective Leader: The Carnegie Method

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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