What is so important about the attributes of great leaders? In my own journey I have found it helpful to not only understand the nature of the ‘character’ of the leader, but also their demonstrated capabilities in order to help me understand where I needed to increase my own capacity as part of improving myself as a leader.
Volumes have been written on this subject. My own understanding of this subject has been ‘incubating’ well over 35 years, and has been helped along by people such as Richard W. Smith, John Zenger and Joseph Folkman, and James Kouzes . My current thinking has me categorizing the attributes of the very best leaders into five areas: Personal Character, Interpersonal Skills , Personal Capability, Results, , and Leading Organizational Change. I could easily take one a month for the next five months, but believe the better choice is to create some breadth and depth in each, but to then explore the interrelationships among the attributes. In order to do this we will address Personal Character, Interpersonal Skills, and Personal Capability this month, and Results and Leading Organizational Change next month.
The first level of the pyramid is the broadest and deepest because it is the foundation from which everything else builds. This is in the area of Personal Character. Within character I think about integrity, the presence of a strong moral and ethical center. Often people with high integrity also possess a high degree of self-awareness of who they are and what they do well. They have learned how to leverage their strengths and minimize the effects of their weaknesses, often by surrounding themselves with people who possess complimentary skills.
They are confident, but not arrogant. That sense of ‘self-assuredness’ enables them to be appropriately assertive and to have balance between their personal life and their professional life. There is a corollary between their ability to manage their own life well – the stress of work, home, their personal well-being (physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual energy), and how they manage in the work place. These leaders are also socially responsible (understanding that we are ‘all in this together’ and know the interrelatedness and contributions of individuals, communities, and the larger world community). They are also optimistic.
The very best leaders exhibit appropriate vulnerability and empathy, which makes them more approachable and human. This includes the ability to say “I’m sorry” and to seek forgiveness. They also tend to be humble, never leveraging their position to the disadvantage of others. Often, they seek to serve. This ‘service’ mindset permeates much of how they view leading, which is to collaborate whenever possible.
They also have a high degree of alignment between what they believe and what they say and do. This congruity makes them trustworthy. This alignment allows them to be very consistent and calm, particularly under pressure.
As I reflect on the area of personal character what emerges is that I started from a knowledge of what my values and beliefs were (who I wanted to become), and have been building my capacity to become that person for most of my life. Achieving ‘alignment’ is a long road of steps and missteps; of succeeding only to fail; making the choices that aligned with who I wanted to become, only to fall off that path because I didn’t have enough courage or discipline at the time. In my experience, the emergence and fine tuning of ‘character’ is rarely easy and often takes years and many ‘do overs.’ I didn’t talk about it much here, but ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness’ are two things that have been instrumental in my growth in the ‘character’ realm.
The second level of the pyramid is Interpersonal Skills , and the by-product of the work we did on Personal Character. Excellent leaders understand that their job involves getting things done through and with others. At the core of their ability to create an environment where that can happen is their ability to create influence, which comes from their ability to build strong, positive relationships. This is not done in a manipulative way, but through a genuine desire to know and help others.
The very best leaders tend to be very good communicators, helping those that work with them to understand purpose and direction, and how their work contributes to the broader business objectives. Their optimism and overall positive energy inspires others to do more, often more than they thought they could produce. Within this framework they are very good at building the skills and capacities of others. They recognize and reward people so they feel valued, further boosting the engagement of others.
They are an effective team member, responding well to feedback of all kinds as well as resolving conflict within their department as well as with others. These skills enable them to create influence up the organization as well as with their peers and subordinates.
These skills are often where we see Emotional Intelligence begin to emerge, and are skills that are pivotal in the success of the very best leaders.
The third level of the pyramid is Personal Capability. Great leaders establish a high degree of credibility based on their ability to be competent in their job. Outside of who we are, capability is the first thing we demonstrate. It is how we are recognized. We come to be a ‘person with potential.’ Often, problem-analysis and problem-solving skills are part of what is recognized. Over time, really good leaders make good decisions based on a mixture of analysis, wisdom, discernment, experience, and judgment – they build their capacity in these areas.
The very best tend to write and speak well, organize their work efficiently, and are able to create clarity. They tend to be innovative, encouraging and developing multiple approaches and new ideas. They show a high level of initiative, seeking ideas and input from others, looking for developmental opportunities.
Their ability to make good decisions contributes to being considered decisive. They also have a strong capability and desire to focus on results. They do this while building strong interpersonal relationships. Their leadership is earmarked by always taking personal responsibility for the outcomes of the group. They provide on-going feedback and coaching to their people.
They focus on the greater good, with an eye on the organizational goals, and the organization’s contributions to their community. They ‘champion’ the needs of the customer and move with speed and a certain ‘intensity’ which often demonstrates their passion for the work.
While I have segmented a number of attributes into three categories, I invite you to see how they interconnect, are at work in tandem, and sometimes simultaneously. In considering how they ‘show up’ in great leaders I would invite you to pay particular attention to how they ‘integrate’ and are ‘functional’ rather than dis-integrated and dis-functional. That has always been an important understanding