Moving into a leadership position can be the pinnacle of an individuals career. It’s an honor to be recognized for ones hard work and diligence on the job. But what actually makes an individual a good leader? What makes them great? Are there some characteristics, personality traits, or common attributes that make a person an exceptional leader? Leadership roles are often the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. But for many who make it into leadership roles a step backwards is in the cards. How does one succeed in leadership? Irregardless if the leadership position is a shift manager at a fast food Restaurant or the CEO of a multimillion dollar corporation, there are certain qualities that define a leader and certain qualities that will make or break them. In this article we’ll explore some of the basic traits that high performing leaders exhibit, and 5 traits that exceptional leaders exhibit. Let’s explore.
Leadership is a complex subject, and there are literally thousands of articles on the subject; as such this list is by no means comprehensive. If you can think of any traits that I may have missed when writing this up, please drop me a line in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Leadership Trait #1: Good leaders listen and act as well as speak
Most of us can recollect working under a boss/manager/CEO who absolutely LOVES the sound of their own voice. They seem to say all the right things during the ‘all-hands’ meeting and talk a great game. But for some the arrow misses it’s mark once the ‘all hands’ meeting is over. Exceptional speaking candor is a highly sought after trait in leadership roles. Public speaking is not easy to master and takes a high level of self confidence to become proficient at. BUT equally important as speaking is the ability to listen and execute.
Listening is not limited to simply hearing the sounds of others voices, but goes beyond that, to the digestion of what others are saying. Beyond speaking and listening is actually executing on what is said and heard. That is taking feedback from those around you and turning it into actionable items. To sum up: a good leader has not only learned and mastered the art of public speaking, but listening and executing as well…
Quote [Anonymous]: “Speak in such a way that others listen to you…. Listen in such a way that others love to speak to you”
Leadership Trait #2: Good leaders act as a lens. They focus and amplify the accomplishments of both the team as a whole, and the individuals they lead
One of the hardest thing for a leader to do is recognize and praise team accomplishments (both individually and as a group). The reason this is so difficult is due to a primal fear of giving up the very limelight that got them into leadership position to begin with. After all leaders almost always originate from the trenches. Yet somehow they managed to stand out above the rest. This was not by accident. As hard it may be to relinquish the limelight, it is a critical requirement of a good leader to do so. This is because once the paradigm has shifted (from individual contributor, to leader) the role of this individual will also change. Let’s dig into some of these traits a bit more.
When providing accolades a good leader will:
- Recognize individuals within the teams they manage for going above and beyond, setting trends, creating innovations etc.
- Provide recognition to individuals outside the team (showcasing individuals hard work to VP’s etc.)
- Recognize the team as a whole and advertise their subordinates to people outside the team.
Leadership Trait #3: Good leaders delegate effectively without being dictatorial
Delegation is the art of handing assignments to individuals and spreading the workload across the team. Spreading work load is a critical requirement of a leader. BUT being able to do this effectively without a heavy handed fist, is an even harder feat. On one hand the leader realizes that tasks must be divided out, on the other hand its extremely easy to come across as a dictator or tyrant when handing out assignments. So how does one strike a balance? The result of a tyrant style approach is the alienation of the team members, and subsequent attrition. That being said some of the best leaders have the inherent ability to delegate and inspire at the same time. Finding this balance is an absolute MUST for an effective leader.
Leadership Trait #4: The best leaders are ‘givers’ not ‘takers’ or ‘matchers’
This concept tracks back to the book ‘Givers’ and ‘Takers’ by Adam Grant. The basic thesis behind the ‘Givers’ and ‘Takers’ publication is the ideology that there are three distinct categories of people in the universe (‘Givers’, ‘Takers’, and ‘Matchers’). The paradigm of this concept is as follows [quoted from the book]:
Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs. Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place. They feel that to succeed, they need to be better than others. To prove their competence, they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts. Garden-variety takers aren’t cruel or cutthroat; they’re just cautious and self-protective. “If I don’t look out for myself first,” takers think, “no one will.”
Givers are a relatively rare breed. They tilt reciprocity in the other direction, preferring to give more than they get. Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them. These preferences aren’t about money: givers and takers aren’t distinguished by how much they donate to charity or the compensation that they command from their employers. Rather, givers and takers differ in their attitudes and actions toward other people. If you’re a taker, you help others strategically, when the benefits to you outweigh the personal costs. If you’re a giver, you might use a different cost-benefit analysis: you help whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs. Alternatively, you might not think about the personal costs at all, helping others without expecting anything in return. If you’re a giver at work, you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with other people who can benefit from them.
Matchers are the quid pro quo juggernauts. The ideology they foster is that each favor must be reciprocated. A one to one accounting balance. No outstanding debts and no outstanding credits.
Leadership Trait #5: Good leaders get the job done without death marching
Pushing a 90 hour work week (for months at a time) to get the job done or a product delivered is incredibly tolling on team members. Sometimes the 90 hour work week is needed. BUT when everything becomes an emergency, eventually the emergencies lose their effect. When this happens you will have turn-over (people will stop caring). People will only work extra hours under pressure for so long, before it becomes a mute effort. As a leader it’s important to be mindful of the current workload of your employees and balance the required ‘final push’ days with the normal workload. One actionable item here is to simply tell your employees to go home, spend time with their families and do other things during the lull periods.
“FACT: A 2008 scientific survey says burnout’s a product of three overlapping factors: exhaustion, cynicism and a feeling of not being able to fulfill job requirements.”
Employee work life balance is a concept spoken about at most organizations, but only a few move beyond paying this concept lip service. For a manager or leader to be effective attention MUST be paid to employee burnout.
Leadership Trait #6: Good leaders don’t require power or authority to influence change
A job title will help you influence change but it is not the only factor. A good leader has the ability to inspire those around him, lead the team regardless of title and impact change (even in small increments). At the same time there are going to be some changes that will be defeated automatically without a specific rank or title… So as a result be careful to press for change where change is possible; but never stop inspiring.
Leadership Trait #7: Good leaders are hands on, engaged, and take feedback
Working side by side with employees to get the job done is a trait that is worth its weight in gold. Serial entrepreneur and multi-millionaire Marcus Lemonis is noted for saying: “We’re not going to wake up in the morning wondering if we have a job, we’re going to wake up in the morning wondering how many jobs we have to do.” This is a profound statement on so many levels. It speaks to the idea that no-one is beyond hands on work or teamwork. Great leaders will not come to work to dictate work to be done but will instead actively participate in team efforts, engage in team dynamic, lend a helping hand, listen, and take input on how to make things better. One of the best managers I worked for managed to inspire the team by engaging in the Engineering process and being passionate about the output of the team and the product we created.
Word of advice: Don’t just stand on the side lines and watch the game, instead engage with the team and win alongside them.
Leadership Trait #8: Good leaders exemplify passion, integrity, empathy, and hard work
On Passion – In business, profit is a bi-product of passion. Organizations built around passionate people will out manuvere the competition every time. Hire passionate people, be passionate yourself and surround yourself with passionate people.
On Integrity – Integrity is an absolutely critical attribute in leaders. If you engage in shady or dishonest business practices, your team members will take notice. The result will be a group of people who don’t trust each other.
On Empathy – There has been a number of articles and publications released in recent years concerning EQ (Emotional Intelligence). For those of you who know me you will probably know that I am not a fan of this concept as a whole. Not because I don’t think empathy isn’t valuable but instead because the concept of EQ serves as a how-to guide for those who would manipulate the system and pretend to have a trait they don’t. In researching EQ I stumbled upon a pretty insightful quote on Quora related to sociopathy and EQ:
“Those who study sociopathy also find a high prevalence of sociopaths on top of the corporate ladders, which sounds contradictory but it isn’t, as there a significant overlap between the sociopathic and the high EQ spectrum. Moreover there are elaborate trainings and support available to these sociopathic leaders to appear self-aware and empathetic to others. EQ test conducted on the leaders are not detailed enough to bring out and decipher the sociopathic tendency of person otherwise scoring high on EQ tests. “
Instead of toting the party line in regards to Emotional Intelligence, I’ll say this: Put yourself (as a leader) in the shoes of the people you lead, be understanding and caring. Treat others how you would like to be treated and work as hard as they do.
On Hard Work – Gaining a leadership role does not mean (for many) a comfy corner office with no work. For leaders to be effective they will need to hone their people skills, understand their employees needs, execute on team goals, and lend a helping hand on day to day tasks.
Great leaders exemplify the following:
Trait #1: Great leaders inspire those around them to be better then they are, more than they were, and greater than they thought they would be
Trait #2: Great leaders diffuse complex disputes (even disputes with other leaders)
Trait #3: Great leaders mentor others to become leaders and foster people to be the best they can be
Trait #4: Great leaders never stop learning
Trait #5: Great leaders define their own path in life and aren’t easily swayed by those who say something is impossible or too hard