What makes a good leader?
Leadership has become the center of attention for organizations after the global financial crisis in late 2007, highlighting the need for better leaders. However, choosing the right people to lead is not an easy process, even though there are lots of candidates with impressive credentials. Leaders possess significant impact on both their followers and the organizational outcomes. A successful leader will help his followers improve their skills and performance levels and therefore enhance productivity inside the company.
There is not a unique recipe for success when leadership is concerned. Different circumstances create different needs and therefore require different styles of leadership, a phenomenon called situational leadership. For instance, a company will require a different kind of leader on a period of growth, when it is hiring stuff, than a crisis period, when it is cutting down budgets and laying people off . Moreover, different cultures may show a preference to specific leadership characteristics. For example, people in the UK prefer leaders who seek to inspire them around a vision, care about their well-being and value their input. On the other hand, Islamic nations like Turkey and Qatar want their leaders to focus on procedures, status and safety of individuals and groups.
A very intriguing question regarding the concept of leadership is whether all those traits that distinguish leaders from other people are gentically inherited or can they be cultivated through experience and hard work. In other words: Leaders are born leaders or they become in the process? Recent studies indicate that only 30% of what makes a good leader depends on genetics, while the rest depends on skills which can be learned and improved through training and experience. Furthermore, according to Andersen’s observations, there is a 10–15% of the population that does not have what it takes to become leaders, no matter how hard they try and how well they train themselves. The remaining 85–90% can improve their leadership skills and become good leaders. Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan conducted a research, in which 88,000 managers who attended a leadership development training were closely observed. Findings of the study suggested that those managers who reflected on their experience of the training program and tried to implement what they learned became more effective leaders. Therefore, leadership is not only a matter of good genes but it also requires a significant amount of training and hard work for potential leaders to exploit their full potential. The purpose of this article is to explore those characteristics a leader should have in order to be considered succesful.
Traits and attributes of a good leader
A significant aspect of a leader’s character is his personal values. To begin with, integrity can be viewed as the cornerstone of leadership, building strong relationships between leaders and employees which are based on mutual trust and collaboration. Leaders who possess integrity treat their followers with honesty and justice, by following up on their promises and not making discriminations in their judgments. Moreover, they are consistent on their core values, demonstrating them through their everyday actions. They also possess a strong ethical code, which helps them distinguish right from wrong on a moral perspective. A strong negative example is Jeff Skilling, the CEO of Enron, whose lack of integrity resulted in the collapse of his company and his imprisonment for mass fraud.
Another important characteristic of great leaders is humility. Leadership is an ongoing process of learning and experimenting. Therefore, leaders should be open-minded to reflect on their mistakes and learn from others in order to improve. They need to put their egos aside to admit their flaws and work on them. To achieve that, they should seek for feedback from their followers and fellow leaders. As Narayana Murthy, co-founder and executive chairman at Infosys, stated, in order for sustainable corporate success to be achieved leaders should recognize that there are smarter people who do things better, both within and outside the company and learn from them.
When it comes to leadership empathy can prove to be a significant asset. It is very important for a leader to understand what his followers are experiencing and share their feelings and emotions, especially when bad news is concerned. However, just being able to understand how someone is feeling may not be enough. Good leaders should act in a compassionate way to try to comfort their followers and reduce the pain they might be experiencing. Taking time to listen to their fears and concerns is a good step towards that direction. Being empathetic will make followers more loyal and trusting to you, since they will feel that you care for them and their interests.
As Ronald Reagan once stated, ‘’To grasp and hold a vision that is the very essence of successful leadership’’. Leaders should possess a vision, a destination which will give meaning to other people’s hard work and sacrifices. Everyone wants to have a purpose in their lives, which will keep them in line and motivate them. Equally important with having a vision, is the leader’s ability to communicate it effectively to his followers. An effective leader carefully explains the vision to his people and convince them for its importance, so that they become committed to it and work hard to reach it.
All successful leaders are passionate about achieving their personal and team goals. Passion relates to a person’s drives, motivating him to exert the necessary effort in order to be successful in his field. Without passion, a leader will not only fail to perform under the expected personal standards, but he will also fail to contribute to his team’s goals. How can a leader persuade his followers about a vision if he does not feel passionate about it in the first place?
For leaders to reach their vision they should be effective decision makers. Good judgment is the compass for leaders to reach their goals. They should assess different situations and decide the best course of action, while being under constant pressure and sometimes having to face tough decisions, especially in periods of crisis. It is crucial to be able to control their emotions and not let them interfere in the decision-making process. As far as decisions are concerned, stereotypes may be a dangerous trap, clouding the leader’s judgment and therefore need to be dealt with. Good judgment is often the difference between success and failure for a company.
Leaders will probably need to make tough decisions at some point in their careers, which may result in conflicts. They also need to take risks with a certain amount of personal cost and to stand up for their opinions even if everyone is trying to shut them down. This attitude of a leader standing up for what he belived is right, even though the vast majority is against him and his ideas can be seen in the ‘’12 Angry Men’’ movie, where a jury tries to prevent a miscarriage of justice by persuading his colleagues to reconsider the evidence and change their preliminay guilty vote. Making difficult decisions demand courage from the leader, as the case of Judith Mackay, world’s leading voice in the anti-smoking initiative, illustrates. Judith fought for what she believed and managed to create a generation of anti-smokers, even if she had to deal with death threats, friends turning their back on her, public humiliation and countries in the midst of civil war.
In addition, it is very important for leaders to demonstrate exceptional communication skills, which will help them build connections with their followers. Given that we spend around 80% of our work day involved in some form of communication, it would not make sense if we did not try to achieve the best outcomes from this. To do so, we need to start listening carefully to what other people are saying and try to open productive dialogue with them.
Leaders should lead by example. As role models for other people, leaders should jump into action, understand what is expected of them and live up to those expectations. Through this, not only they will inspire other people to participate actively in the process, but they will also show them the way to be successful. As John Furlong said: ‘’People will do anything for you if they see a good example to follow’’. A very strong example of leadership by example can be found in ‘’Endurance’’, a documentary movie about Sir Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic. In this move, we witness Shackleton’s struggle to lead his 28-man crew to safety, after his ship ‘’Endurance’’ was crushed in the park ice.
Leaders in start-ups and other innovative companies
First of all, the most crucial attribute a leader should possess in modern enterprises is the ability to think outside the box. Leaders often face situations which are not part of their standard routine and demand an alternative course of action. In cases like this, they will have a whole team waiting for them to take quick and effective decisions to solve the problem in hand. It is vital for them to be creative and come up with innovative ideas, since according to Aubrey Marcus founder of Onnit, innovation is our only chance to solve the challenges modern companies are facing.
An effective leader will also need to be patient to achieve his goals and reach his vision. ‘’If your vision is bold enough, there will be hundreds of reasons why it ‘can’t be done’ and plenty of doubters’’ stated Dan Brian, COO of Whip Clip. That is especially true with start-ups, which usually do not generate profits in their first years of operation and may also need a substantial funding from investors. Leaders should not be discouraged in case their companies demonstrate losses in the first years and should instead continue to work hard to turn things around. Moreover, they should be prepared to get refused by a lot of investors when they try to secure funding for their company. They should not give up and continue to pursue their goal. Patience also extends to their followers. It is common for leaders to get overwhelmed by their passion and expect immediate and top quality results from their team and, thus get frustrated when they realize that people in their team cannot live up to their expectations. Instead, they should take the necessary time to explain to their followers what is expected of them and provide them with the necessary guidance.
Furthermore, leaders create their followers and there is always a danger for them to become too focused on the presented task in expense of their team and individuals. As John Adair’s Action Centered Leadership Model states, equal attention should be given to the three circles (task, team, individual), although sometimes one of them may require our focus. Thus, in order to create exemplary followers, who will be ready to take initiatives and solve corporate problems, leaders should encourage them to express their opinions and show them that they value their input, even if it sometimes challenges them. Leaders should respect the contributions of their people and make them feel significant members of the organization. Exemplary followers are important assets for start-ups and innovative companies, as innovation is a democratic process and every member on a team should be able to contribute to it.
In challenging periods, when things are not going according to plan and the future of the company looks clouded, people tend to lose their faith in the vision and start to panic. It is a leader’s job to have confidence in his vision and his ability to turn things around and pass this confidence to other members of the team. As the captain of the ship, a leader should maintain the team’s morale and calmness and convince them that things are going to get better if they keep working hard. However, doing these things, he must first be confident himself that his plan will eventually work and that he has what it takes to succeed.
Finally, in start-ups and innovative companies there is a strong need of servant leadership, where leaders operate more as supporters instead of supervisors. Leaders should be ready to delegate responsibilities and give control to their followers, while at the same time providing them with help and guidance whenever needed. For this to happen, there should be a change in the traditional hierarchical way many leaders are thinking.
To sum up, being a leader is a tough challenge, as it bears increased responsibilities and expectations. Leaders are supposed to make a difference in business environments, facing periods of crisis, inspiring their people to embrace their vision and helping them to achieve their potential. Their success is now measured not by how they perform individually, but mostly by how their people perform due to their presence. As Dennis Peer stated: “One measure of leadership is the caliber of the people who choose to follow you”.
For leaders to make a difference to their companies, they should first realize their own strengths and weaknesses and be ready to work hard to improve. Keeping an open mind to admit possbile mistakes, realizing that you are not the smartest person in the room and asking for feedback are necessary steps in the path of self-awareness, a path all leaders should cross. Since in leadership there is not a guaranteed recipe for success, a try and error process is required for leaders to find out which style is suitable in which occasion and they often need to change their leadership views in the process.
Finally, it is very important for leaders to discover their core values, as they are the driving forces which shape their behavior. Bearing in mind that their values are going to be tested and they may face decisions challenging them at some point in their career, they should decide if they are ready to make compromises on them. If that is not the case, then they should choose to join companies whose corporate values are on the same side with their own personal ones.