Leadership Qualities: What Does It Take to Become a Great Leader?

No one ever said that being a good leader was easy. A leader’s actions are constantly scrutinized and their leadership qualities help get them through good times and bad. Employees look up to, respect and work very hard for these qualities – which is why it’s so important for every great leader to work hard to hone their leadership qualities.

Leaders Overcommunicate

Once I was speaking at a conference when the CEO of the company leaned over and whispered in my ear. He said, “I am giving the same speech I’ve given the last two years. The stories are different. The examples are different, too. But it’s the same message.”

The CEO wondered whether he was wrong in doing so, and asked me what I thought. I told him, “Your message was right three years ago. It was right last year, and it’s right this year. Changing your message will confuse people as far as who they are and where they are going. You aren’t delivering change. You’re doubling down.”

Great leaders relentlessly communicate a consistent message.

  • Mission: Great leaders relentlessly communicate their company’s mission. Those who never speak of “mission,” never capture the hearts and minds of the people they have the honor to lead. Great leaders aren’t afraid to communicate about the difference their organization is making, and they remind their teams of that mission with a steady stream of examples.
  • Vision: Great leaders also take every opportunity to remind the people they lead where they are going, how they are going to get there, and who they are going to become. They communicate this vision, knowing that they win converts slowly and over time.
  • Values: A leader leads through her values. What is important to her is important to her organization. What she ignores, they will also ignore. Great leaders draw a line in the sand separating “who we are” from “who we will never be.” I know one leader who refuses to make money from his vendors, money his competitors take. I know another who never stops talking about caring. Their companies live those values.
  • Who We Are: Effective leaders talk about their competition. They explain to the people they lead how they are different from their competitors, why they do things differently, and why it matters. By talking about these things, they help the people they lead understand their place in the world.

As a leader, it is impossible to over-communicate in any of these areas. It is possible to cause people to lose their enthusiasm if you don’t bring these ideas to life with stories, anecdotes, and examples of people getting things right.

Leaders Have Managerial Will

Compensation is one way to drive behavior and produce the outcome you need, as limited as it may be by itself. Having plans and metrics can also guide behaviors and help produce the outcomes you need. These levers, as much as we like to employ them, are not as powerful as the underutilized method for getting things done: managerial will.

Managerial will is a combination of leadership and accountability.

Be the Leader Your Team Needs

Managerial will is the leadership to tell your people that you are going to take the hill, and then driving the action to actually take the hill. Regardless of compensation. Regardless of plans and metrics. You achieve the goal through your personal leadership.

You establish the goal, and you employ all your resources, including time, energy, money, and people in achieving that goal. Come hell or high water.

Inspect and Adjust

The second part of managerial will is holding people accountable for their role in achieving the goal. You ask them about their progress. And then you ask them again. When they’re struggling, you help remove the obstacles to their performance. You coach them. You help them with whatever will enable them to do their part in producing the results you need them to produce as part of the larger goal.

Without the leadership component to managerial will, compensation and other levers rarely produce the results desired. If you had to choose between the two, managerial will is the safer bet, especially with a great, actualized leader.

Without the accountability component, you will achieve results that are far less than what you are capable of producing.

This resistance to managerial will comes from the great–and real–fear that leaders will hurt people and that an unenlightened dominator who makes poor leadership choices uses managerial will. But this too stems from a lack of managerial will, namely that of the manager’s leader in allowing bad behavior.

Managerial will, when exercised by a thoughtful, enlightened, caring leader is a force multiplier that allows their team to outproduce larger, better-resourced competitors who lack this discipline.

Leaders Know Their Non-Negotiables

There are some things that a leader cannot and should not negotiate – knowledge of this is one of the most powerful leadership qualities. Some values have to be written in stone and written clearly for all who come in contact with an organization to see. These are the non-negotiables.

  • Culture: A leader must create and sustain a positive, empowering culture. Culture is non-negotiable. If someone or something threatens culture, the leader needs to take action. Allowing a positive empowering culture to crumble is to allow the organization to be radically changed for the worse.
  • Values: Values are what sustain an organization, especially through times of great change. Values are what persist and what provide a foundation. If one of the values is integrity, then allowing people to color outside the lines is a non-starter. The leader not only has to embody the values, but she also has to enforce them.
  • Treating people well: Treating people well leads to better performance than treating them poorly. Trusting people actually makes them more trustworthy, and enabling people to take initiative and be resourceful encourages them to try to do those things. When people feel like their workplace is something between prison and daycare, they lose morale and end up losing workers. Leaders set the tone and ensure proper treatment in the workplace. You can’t attract and build new leaders otherwise.
  • Business models: This isn’t to say that business models can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t change. They can, will, and should over time, but only at the right time and for the right reasons. Allowing price reductions that inhibit your ability to produce results breaks the model. Selling products and services that don’t create the value your clients want, need, and expect from you changes the model, too. A leader cannot allow the model to change or falter.

A leader needs a list of non-negotiables: things that won’t change just because someone doesn’t like the culture, the values, the business model, or who doesn’t want to treat other people well.

Leaders Focus on Big Initiatives

As a leader, it is easy to get bogged down in the little stuff.

Many of the people you lead will bring you small problems because they haven’t worked for a leader who has required them to act independently (mostly because that leader didn’t trust them to act independently).

Much of what reaches your desk are tiny fires. The nature of the problem requires urgency, and the people who work for you want to make sure that you know what’s going on and weigh in on the decision.

Urgent work gives you a sense of accomplishment. Nothing makes you feel like you’re working more than making decisions and handling the things that need attention. Many people in leadership roles thrive on this work because it feeds their need for significance. But “small fires” isn’t where a leader should spend much of their time.

For many leaders, these “small fires” keep them from having to do the real heavy lifting of leadership.

It is easier to get frustrated and focus on small stuff than it is to fix the big stuff. That’s why maintaining a focus on big initiatives is one of the most critical leadership qualities.

  • Strategic Threats: Dealing with urgent issues keeps you busy and prevents you from dealing with the strategic threat facing your business. That threat is so great that there is no easy answer available, but strategic threats left unaddressed makes the future more uncertain and creates additional risks.
  • Developing Leaders: Small, urgent issues with relatively easy answers can keep you from spending time developing the next generation of leaders, the important work that is never urgent enough to get a leader’s full attention.
  • Biggest Initiatives: There is some work that only a leader can do. There is more work that competent, trusted people can easily do when empowered to take action independently. Someone still needs to address the small, urgent issues, but the leader’s job is to ensure that she has the team necessary to handle them so that she can focus on what only the leader can do.

The most dangerous thing a leader can do is to allow small issues to prevent them from pursuing their two or three biggest initiatives. These important initiatives often die when a leader’s time is being devoted to smaller, less important issues. Make maintaining a focus on big initiatives one of your leadership qualities and you’ll start to see the impact right away.

Leaders Don’t Care If People Like Them

Leadership is a tricky subject. There are so many leadership qualities, beliefs, and behaviors that make up a good leader that it’s impossible to come up with a single defining characteristic. The same could be said for mistakes that would-be leaders make. Right now, one big mistake comes to mind.

The Need to Be Liked

One thing that leadership is not is a popularity contest. A leader can’t have an overwhelming need to be liked.

  • The need to be liked can prevent a leader from having tough conversations that are necessary to good leadership.
  • The need to be liked can cause some leaders to avoid taking some action because they are afraid that someone will think less of them for making a decision–even when it is the right decision.
  • In the worst of all cases, a leader with a strong need to be liked will refuse to hold people accountable for fear of that person not liking them.

Not Feared, But Respected

None of this means that a leader should want to be disliked. How you achieve outcomes as a leader is every bit as important as the outcomes themselves.

The idea that it is better for a leader to be feared than loved if she “can’t be both,” is 500 years old. Much about leadership has changed in 5 centuries.

  • The best leader you had cared enough about you to have the tough conversations necessary to help you see your blind spots. They weren’t mean-spirited in their criticism. They just saw something more in you than you could see at the time.
  • The best leader you will ever have will make the decision to do what is right even when it is an unpopular decision. That leader will weigh their decisions carefully and do what is best for the people that they lead.
  • A great leader will hold you accountable for producing results, even when those results are difficult to achieve.

The leader that you loved won’t be one that you feared. It will be the one that you respected and who cared about you and the people they led. By not needing to be liked, the leader earns the love and respect of the people they have the privilege to lead.

The best leaders exhibit certain traits that make them hugely successful. Embrace these qualities and be a great leader too.

Filed under: Guides, Leadership

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