What makes a great leader? Is there a formula for leadership? Are some of us born of leadership material and others not? I’ve wrestled with these questions for several months now and I’ve shared my thinking with you in a couple recent blogs.
Is There Such Thing as Management Material and are You Made of It?
4 Things Great Managers Never Do
This week I’m going to address another perspective on this topic. I’m going to share 5 attributes, that in my opinion, are most critical to great leadership. These are characteristics I’ve observed in the best managers I’ve worked for and with. They’re the traits I actively work on to develop in myself.
I have said, on several occasions, I don’t believe there is one magic recipe for leadership. My experience tells me leaders come in many forms. But I also know, there are some common traits I see across the best managers I’ve worked with. I want to share those with you today.
While there is no single formula that makes a great leader, there are some traits most great leaders have in common. I work to develop these traits in myself and my team members. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these attributes and if you think I may be missing some.
The longer I go in my career, the more I value calmness as a leadership attribute. Things change so fast these days. Our companies are changing. Our technologies are changing. It feels, to me at least, that we are spinning faster and faster. The pace of change can be overwhelming even for the hardened veterans among us.
Calm leadership is more important now than ever. Your team needs you to be stoic when everything around them is chaotic. When a plane goes through sudden turbulence, the first thing passengers do is look at the flight attendants to see if they’re panicking. If the flight attendants are calm, it calms everyone. If the flight attendants blink, everyone panics. Panic and worry are contagious. The same is true at work.
I council the leaders on my team to make calmness an attribute they strive for. It takes practice, but you can develop it – at least outwardly. None of us are immune to a certain degree of worry and panic – I do it all the time on the inside. But I make a point of presenting a calm demeanor, especially when things are chaotic. When my team members look at me, I want them to see someone who is under control, so they in turn, will stay controlled. I want to make the contagion work for good instead of bad.
I used to think I was clear in my communication until I started doing performance reviews and terminations on a larger team. I realized in a hurry, that the messages I thought I was communicating to people, were not exactly what they were hearing.
Many of us focus too much on what we think we are saying, and not nearly enough on what our audience is actually hearing. How many times have you left a meeting believing you were crystal clear, only to learn later there was a huge disconnect? It’s happened to me more than I’d care to admit.
How many times have you given someone a negative performance review, only to discover they had no idea there was a problem in the first place? It can be quite vexing for everyone. It’s easy to blame the person on the other side for not listening, but is that really fair?
Your job as a leader, is to be clear with people. To give clear direction. To provide clear feedback. To be honest. There’s a big difference between speaking and communication. What matters most in communication, is that both parties are aligned. With that goal in mind, I have worked over the last few years to make clarity a priority. At first, that meant being a bit robotic. I could be quite clinical when giving direction and feedback. I’d document things. I’d list things clearly. I’d speak in brief, direct language. It felt a bit awkward, but it was effective. It solved the clarity problem. And, over the years, with more practice, I have learned to be clear without being so clinical. It’s become more natural for me and just as effective.
My advice to leaders is to make clarity your top communication priority. Focus more on what is being heard and less on what you are saying. I realize that sounds a bit odd, but it has worked wonders for me.
Long time readers of The Weekly Reid may be bored of me talking about objectivity. I do it a lot, because I have found it to be extremely important in my career. Some leaders struggle to be objective because their passion clouds their judgement. They get locked into a way of thinking. They become rigid. They become blind to alternative ways of thinking. I’m sure you know managers like this. You may even see this tendency in yourself sometimes. When you lose objectivity, you miss opportunities that could be roads to greatness for you and your team.
I’ve had a few unfortunate experiences working with leaders who lacked objectivity. They became unable to see beyond their own perspectives. They became TOO passionate about a program or approach or strategy, and it eroded their performance and credibility. If you’re not careful, a dogmatic allegiance to one way of thinking can chip away at your reputation over time. You want to be viewed as a manager who can take on anything, who can adapt to change – not a one trick pony.
By contrast, the best managers I’ve worked with, were ruthlessly objective. Passionately objective, if you will. They were open to new ideas, counter arguments, input from others. They could embrace being wrong as strongly as they could embrace being right. They took advantage of changes and new perspectives. Their teams were loyal because their ideas were heard.
My recommendation to leaders is to focus on embracing a spirit of objectivity in yourself and inspiring it in your teams. If you want to read more about my views on this subject, check out this blog I wrote a while back:
We hear a lot about empathy these days. To the point where it’s easy to ignore the concept when you see it. I would advise against that. If there was one attribute I would credit most for any success I have had as a leader, it would be empathy.
When you hear the word … “empathy” … most of us hear something very soft. Not me. For me, empathy at work is about taking the perspective of others so you can be effective. When I’m in a negotiation, I’m using empathy to put myself in the other party’s position. When I’m building competitive intelligence, I use empathy to understand why my competition is behaving the way they are. When I’m developing people, I use empathy to discover the best possible ways to motivate my team members.
Tactical empathy, as I call it, is one of the most valuable (and underutilized) leadership skills. If you haven’t already, I suggest checking out this blog I wrote on the subject.
My advice is to take empathy more seriously. Develop in yourself. Spend more time placing yourself in the shoes of others, and less time focusing on your own perspective. It has been immeasurably valuable for me and I think it can help you too.
In chaotic times, your team needs you to be decisive. It’s rare that you will ever have all the information you need to be certain about any decision, but you still need to be decisive. That’s one of the great challenges of being a leader. Indecision or waffling from a leader can kill a team faster than just about anything.
I spent many years playing poker at a reasonably high level. That experience taught me to be comfortable making tough decisions based on incomplete information and loosely calculated probabilities and expected returns. In poker, you never know exactly what hand your opponent has, but with some practice and a little math, you can narrow the possibilities down to a range of possible holdings. To be successful at poker, and at work, you need to be able to take whatever information you have, evaluate the probable outcomes of your available options, and make a confident, decisive decision. And then learn to live with the results. You won’t always be right, but if you do it often enough, in the long run, you will come out ahead.
It’s hard for leaders to make confident decisions knowing that some percentage of the time they will be wrong. But the alternative is worse. Not making firm decisions leads to chaos. Your team will lose confidence in you. Your peers will lose respect for you. And you won’t come out any further ahead in the long run anyways.
My advice is to focus on being decisive, even when you don’t have all the information you need. Embrace the concept of making logical, well-formed decisions without perfect information. As it becomes a habit, you’ll get more confident and your team will embrace it too.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of leader I want to be. And as I continue to learn and gain experience, my image of model leadership is evolving. I’d love to hear your thoughts on leadership attributes. What stands out to you? Send me an email or write in the comments to share your experiences.