Characteristics of a leader
So just what is it that makes one leader better than another? If you’ve ever asked yourself what it is that makes you lead, there’s little doubt that the thought alone provokes many reasons that push you to do what you do, as well as a bunch that make you question why you bother. Inevitably, the act of questioning ones own ability to lead a company in itself can foster seeds of doubt in the mind. Leaders often display a range of similar character traits which indicate their potential to operate at the highest level in their organisation. In this section we explore some of the more commonly encountered characteristics displayed by leaders of business.
Great leaders display great vision
Think of a leader, then think of what they stood for and what it was that made them great. It may seem somewhat obvious, but the best leaders tend to adopt a laser-like focus on their goal, and a stoic belief that they are exactly the right person to deliver on that goal. This vision, when applied appropriately and effectively, is magnetic, and has the potential to draw teams together, stacking alongside one another as a united power. But what is a vision, where does it come from, and how do you use it?
Establishing the perfect vision can be tricky. And plenty of leaders get it wrong, yet still progress to be successful. However, that’s a bumpy route, and one that can be made much smoother if you use the right tools and techniques. Amongst several other key things, understanding the position of your business in the market and where your strengths lie is crucial. A robust knowledge of your organisational, product and service strengths, or core competencies as they are sometimes referred to, are mission-critical to the success of moving towards your vision.
Your vision is a future state, somewhat ethereal, almost unachievable - out of reach if you wish, but it should definitely be something ambitious to lead your organisation towards.
Articulation mastery for leaders
Communicating the purpose behind the vision should be high on your leadership agenda. Sharing your own belief in the vision with your team is fundamental to harnessing their enthusiasm, which will ultimately become the fuel which drives the activities that will deliver on the business strategy. How you go about articulating the vision is of critical importance. However, there are no rules or set format for doing so. Why? Because all businesses are different and won’t necessarily respond to the way in which they are told about the lofty ambitions of the C-suite.
Articulation of a corporate vision will usually require an element of creativity in developing the most suitable way to effectively communicate the goals of the board. However, some basic principles apply that will help you do so.
For maximum clarity of communication, ensure:
- - The agreed vision is appropriate, simple and aspirational
- - Inspires the belief and enthusiasm of your team
- - It is reflected in the culture and values of the organisation
- - Encourages inclusivity of activities to stimulate response
- - Is communicated with clarity and frequency, internally and externally
Of course, there are many other techniques that you might utilise to leverage the potential of a powerful vision, but starting with the basics is recommended.
Leaders maintain integrity
A rather obvious but often overlooked attribute of a strong leader is the ability to build trust and inspire. Integrity is a key component of both of these characteristics, and can easily be overlooked by a developing leader as they strive to foster respect and loyalty amongst a team.
The grind of office politics can wear down even the hardiest of leaders, and can result in occasions where there is an overwhelming temptation to lower their guard. Doing so results in exposure - minimal at best, full on at worst - and exposure is both infectious and dangerous. Exposure could be the revealing of a weakness, some personal or company information, or a tendency or habit that would otherwise have remained private. Once such detail is known, even by a limited few in an organisation, the potential for character damage, aka integrity, is increased.
This emphasises the significance of maintaining good but practically limited relations with your colleagues, whether they are senior management or otherwise. This isn’t to suggest that a leader shouldn’t be open, approachable and friendly, but that it is important to be conscious of how revealing details might have knock-on implications further down the line, and have the potential to compromise your integrity.
Asserting the correct way
Most are familiar with the phrase ‘less is more’. This is unlikely to be truer than in situations where a leader is relaying important information to the team. Assertiveness is often confused with aggression due to the potential for assertion to be abrupt and perhaps slightly above normal volume. Ironically, the raised temperature of aggression often results from the failure to communicate effectively and therefore not winning over the agreement of your team. Allowing communication to drift into an aggressive state is dangerous as it can present implications about your character and integrity, which can potentially persist beyond the instance where the aggression was presented.
The opposite of being assertive is to be passive. A passive communicator is to be overly-agreeable, un-opinionated, or possibly less vocal. Maybe all three. The lack of ability to be heard or acknowledged means that your opinion will be challenged more frequently, or worse, go unnoticed. A passive leader will inevitably struggle to win over the hearts and minds of troops as a result.
Being assertive requires confidence in ones presence and a belief in your view point, plus the ability to present that viewpoint succinctly. This is a skill that is frequently observed in leaders that make their way into the media. In situations where time is of the essence and the needs of your audience are strong, the effectiveness of a short, concise but clearly articulated perspective is high. The ability to deliver opinion or instruction is an incredibly valuable asset to all leaders.
Walking the walk
It’s a clichéd saying, but the best leaders really do ‘walk the walk’. This term roughly translates to mean that a leader will ensure that their actions match the words that they speak. Leading by example might mean immersing yourself - where appropriate - in the everyday activities that your team carry out to demonstrate that you’re capable of venturing outside of your comfort zone to get the job done. This sends a positive signal from a leader to their team to indicate that it’s OK to step outside of your comfort zone, or even just beyond the scope of your everyday work, to ensure projects are delivered on time.
Walking the walk means so much more than just lending a hand when the going gets tough. It means leading by example when you interact with others too. For example, displaying equality when communicating with a colleague, using appropriate language and tone, extending courtesies, allowing that person the freedom to respond without cutting their sentence short, the list goes on.
All too often, those charged with leading a business can become so entrenched in the responsibility that they can view their own priorities as more important than others. But priorities are relative, and the failure to recognise this exposes characteristics such as ego, self-importance, arrogance, and stunted awareness. These negative aspects have the potential to erode a leader's integrity within a business, which is ironically the very aspect most seek so enthusiastically to achieve.
Create an environment for growth
Like plants, businesses need just the right combination of ingredients in order to prosper. And unless senior management can provide the appropriate conditions for growth, it can be difficult for an organisation to thrive.
Establishing the right atmosphere in the workplace might sound like an obvious activity for a leader to pursue, but how might one actually go about it? What is an atmosphere that promotes prosperity - is it a strategy in itself? Or maybe it’s a set of values? Perhaps it’s about developing an open, positive culture of creativity? In truth, cultivating an atmosphere for growth is not one single action or outcome, it’s many. In fact, like most strategic objectives, few are truly achievable by pursuing a sole tactical activity.
Consider getting the team to collectively identify 10 things that might improve their working conditions and result in a more productive office. Obviously, you can’t deliver on all 10, so the best course would be to implement the top 3. Of course, there are various tools and techniques that you could use for the identification, selection and implementation processes, which we’ll discuss in greater detail in another article.
Some of the actions you might consider include:
- - Creating a set of shared values amongst the team
- - Using those values to outline a desired cultural state
- - Agree objectives and KPIs that motivate team activity
- - Identify role models and amplify their actions
- - Relax a rigid work structure to something more flexible
All of the above will require organisational change, so driving that change is key to the success. Of critical importance is buy-in, therefore, each of the actions you choose to follow should be fully detailed and communicated to those it will most effect.