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Characteristics of Great Leaders

Recently we’ve looked at the skills needed to be a good manager – the foundation of leadership.  Today we are going to look at what’s involved in making the leap from being a good manager to becoming a great leader.

Our goal here is to highlight some of the most important characteristics while recognizing there are many others.  As you move along the path to leadership, you will discover which qualities are most important to you and which contribute to making up your own distinct identity as a leader.

Leaders Take Responsibility

This first leadership quality may seem to be given.  You might be thinking, “Of course leaders take responsibility.  What’s the big deal about that?”  Taking responsibility in a real sense is a deep and profound obligation. When you are a leader, there are no excuses.  Like it or not, you are held accountable for everything that happens on your watch.

This means if something goes wrong with your people or equipment, you can’t just step to the side and wait for someone else to fix it.  Even if the problem is not our fault – maybe not even within your area of expertise – you need to take the initiative, find out what is going on, and take action.

Taking responsibility means if a subordinate is underperforming or causing a disruption, you need to have the courage to step in rather than look the other way and hope for the best. More often than not, bad behavior tends to return if left unchallenged.

Leaders Treat Everyone Fairly

We’re all humans which means we all have opinions.  We have natural reactions to different people and different personalities.  Depending on your own history and associations, these feelings can be positive or negative.  The challenge for leaders is to treat everyone fairly in spite of these natural reactions.  This requires self-discipline and self-awareness.  You must be aware of your personal biases if you want to be able to counter them.  The best leaders work hard to find the positive even in those who “rub them the wrong way.”

Leaders Are Authentic

Your subordinates watch you as their leader closely.  Over time, they get to know you quite well and they can see through any phoniness.  If you try to put on a fake personality, it doesn’t ring true.  That’s why authenticity is another character trait of leaders.

Authenticity starts with knowing who you are.  An honest self-assessment allows you to take the raw material of your own character and build on your own personality and strengths.  It also helps you to acknowledge your limitations and work to prevent them from getting in the way.

Leaders Develop Their People

Your subordinates work for you – but you work for them too.  Your success is based on their success.  You can’t do it alone. That’s why supporting your people and their personal growth is an important component of leadership.  When they grow and succeed and the entire organization succeeds.

Leaders Admit Their Mistakes

History is full of examples of the tragic consequences of those in power refusing to admit they were wrong.  Rather than find a way out of a bad decision, they threw even more resources at it, trying to make it work in spite of growing evidence that it was already a failure.  By contrast, successful leaders don’t automatically assume they have all the answers.  They know mistakes cannot be completely avoided and they are bound to be wrong occasionally.  It’s important to stay humble and be ready to acknowledge those times when you are wrong.  The people you lead will forgive mistakes but not arrogance.

Leaders Build Community

Strong leaders commonly express the goal of building community.  You can do this by encouraging others to participate in the decision making process.  Ask for input.  Say things like, “how are we going to do this as a team?” rather than “I want you to do it my way.”  This helps employees develop a sense of control over what happens in the workplace which builds community.

Build community on a foundation of fairness, consistency and honesty.  Establish a level of trust, a sense of shared purpose, and a positive environment for their people to take on new challenges.

Leaders Have Vision

Vision is not easy to define but it is an important element of leadership.  It has the most impact at higher levels, but there is an element of vision at every level of leadership.  Vision has two elements: storytelling and foresight.

Storytelling means understanding the meaning and history of your organization and communicating this to employees so they see that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Foresight means the ability to combine experience with information to recognize trends and create new solutions to the challenges of the future.

Leaders Are Excellent Communicators

The word “communicator” comes up over and over when discussing leadership strengths.  It’s easy to see that leaders communicate in order to share their authenticity and vision.  They communicate in order to inspire their people to build community.  What’s not as easy to see is that communication does not just mean speaking.  It also means spending a lot of time listening.

Communication goes both ways.  You have to listen first in order to understand what is going on.  You can’t interrupt and you can’t be thinking about our response. Instead, focus on what is being communicated to you.  Be sure to listen.

Leaders Have Integrity

The most important and universal leadership trait is personal integrity.  People follow leaders they trust, respect and admire.  Ultimately they want their leaders to be honest and not cut corners.  They want leaders who work for the good of the whole rather than for their own personal advantage.  They want leaders to bypass short-term gain and think about the effects of their decisions and actions over the long term.

Personal integrity is what makes most employees choose to follow the best leaders and ignore other voices in the crowd.  They follow because of how these leaders make them feel: proud of their work, inspired to do more and better, solidly part of a team that works well together and at the same time looks out for them. These feelings keep individual stress levels down and make success more likely for the group as a whole.

To be a great leader, you must hold yourself to the highest standards.  You can’t lie, cheat, steal, or take unfair advantage of others. Period.

Your people observe your actions in good times and bad.  They see you when you are under stress and they evaluate your responses.  In the end, they will have a very good idea of your values and how closely you adhere to them.  As a leader, it’s important not to disappoint them. In fact, it’s essential.

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