The Good And The Bad Of Leadership
November 17, 2015
"When you think of great leaders what names come to mind?" That was a question I was asked this week. Names like Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg, Richard Branson, Oprah, Tony Hsieh and Jack Welch immediately sprung to mind. After the conversation I thought more deeply about what it was that drew me to those leaders and the many others that I would regard as great leaders. There were a lot of commonalities among those that I highly regard. As people they are all clearly different, but their leadership styles share similar attributes.
As I started to explore what the similarities were by relooking at their journeys, successes and failures, I noted down the characteristics that rose to the surface. It got me thinking that we -- as leaders -- should pay attention to these proven characteristics as they are a guiding light toward consistency and a higher standard of leadership. It also became obvious to me that just as there were characteristics among great leaders there were also similarities among bad leaders. We also need to be vigilant in watching out for the characteristics that will hold us back.
"What were the most common traits of good leaders and bad leaders?" I'm glad you asked.
... Are positive. Exuding a positive attitude is essential. Great leaders understand their role is to create a happy and motivated team driven to succeed. Negativity is contagious and doubt is like an infestation of woodworm; once it starts it spreads to quickly weaken and destroy everything in its path. Great leaders are optimistic about the future and what can be achieved. They remain positive when things go wrong or times are challenging.
... Take responsibility. They don't make excuses. They are realists and accept that things won't always go the way they had intended. When it comes to their organization, workplace or any other situation, they take personal responsibility for failure. Great leaders expect their teams to be accountable and hold themselves to the same standards. When things aren't going to plan they take the blame and work on a solution.
... Develop their people. Great leaders know that the best team always wins. Having the best people is essential. Great leaders are focused on finding improvements. They work with those around them to identify strengths and development opportunities. They help accentuate the strengths and build action plans for improving areas of vulnerability. Great leaders know that personal development and career growth are important motivators. Working with people to help them succeed fosters good morale, and it also builds respect and loyalty.
… Are expert communicators. Some people would argue this is the most important skill for a great leader. Being a good communicator is complex. Being able to share information and ideas with a team of vastly different experience and knowledge is no easy task. Taking what is inside your mind, simplifying it and explaining it with conviction sounds easy enough, but so few are actually able to do it. Being able to communicate clearly with those around you breeds confidence within the organization. Equally, being able to listen to what is being said to you -- separating your personal feelings -- and responding objectively is a key component of great leadership.
… Are confident. They believe they are going to succeed. Great leaders know that their organization is always looking to them for guidance and reassurance. How a leader behaves is an indicator of how an organization will behave; teams mirror the standards and values their leader exudes. Great leaders aren't arrogant, they just believe in their purpose and their people. They remain calm and poised. Great leaders never panic… well, not in public.
... Are Decisive. Every leader must make tough decisions. Great leaders accept this responsibility and know that for their organization to succeed they will have difficult choices to make. Great leaders don't hesitate to make decisions. They search out all the data available and make decisions in a swift and timely manner. They are firm in their course of action. They know indecision is actually a decision and that taking too long means an opportunity will pass.
… Are empathetic. Great leaders have the unique ability to see things from their team's eyes. Great leaders praise in public and address problems in private. They guide their teams through challenges with genuine concern. They create an authentic rapport with their team and encourage individuals to share their concerns without fear of repercussion. They approach conversations and people without judgement. They don't let the feelings involved in the situation control the outcome. They understand that treating others, as they would like to be treated, is a universal principle that has served us well for many years.
... Are focused. They commit to their vision with laser like precision. Once they set their mind on the goal they are dogged in making the dream a reality. Great leaders are focused on results. They plan ahead and are highly organized in their approach. They strategize and assess every option available to them. They establish processes and routines so they can define and measure performance in tangible ways. They are perceptive to what is happening and ensure the organization doesn't become distracted from the mission.
Being a great leader is something many of us aspire to. By studying the characteristics of leaders who have built exemplary teams, achieved unprecedented results and overcome adversity, we begin to see opportunities for ourselves. As you read through these traits consider areas for your own improvement. The traits I shared are not exhaustive. There are many more traits that you will demonstrate in your leadership role and different leaders will showcase or emphasize different traits. That's normal. As we grow into our own authentic leadership style, our personality will shape how we 'show up.' However, great leaders do share at least all of the traits outlined above. If you're missing or underutilizing any one of them, you have the opportunity to grow further.
When you begin your leadership journey, it's easy to make mistakes. But when your organization or team are scrutinizing your every move, it's important you don't display the wrong types of behaviors - the behaviors that will ultimately hold you back from success. As much as we strive to be great, which is an inevitably long journey, it's equally important to be aware of what bad leaders do. You want to avoid these with ferocity.
… Lack transparency. People require honesty from their leaders. When people believe you are not being completely honest with them it undermines trust and breeds insecurity. The organization will stall when people are concerned about what may truly be happening. A lack of transparency is a cause for people to search out other opportunities. There is rarely a reason not to be entirely transparent with your team. People appreciate knowing exactly where they and the company stands.
… Ignore ideas from others. There is a weird phenomenon among bad leaders. They think that because they're at the top of the organization that they must have all the answers. They believe that because their job title is more grandiose that their way of doing things is correct. This is incredibly toxic behavior. You need your team to see that they are contributing. If you're hiring good people encourage them to collaborate and then help develop the ideas. It's essential that leaders provide strong praise and give credit for the source of the ideas.
… Are inconsistent. Bad leaders change their minds. A lot. In an environment of inconsistency there is high confusion. Confusion is the enemy of results. When people don't know what is happening how can they be effective? People need clarity. Results come when everyone is aware of what's important and what needs to happen. People don't go 'all in' if they think it's a fad and it will pass. Equally destructive is inconsistency in how you behave. You need to be consistent in how you treat people and respond to situations. Great leaders insure that they are consistent in their approach and style.
… Are scared of change. Change is inevitable. It's not always pleasant, especially if it involves lots of money and/or people's jobs, but it will happen. Bad leaders bury their heads in the sand. They avoid change. They pretend that it's not really happening. Being able to adapt is a quality needed in leadership. You must see the changes that need to happen in order to move the organization forward. Leaders who cannot embrace change are destined to be left behind.
… Lack follow through. Bad leaders have no bias toward action. These bad leaders always appear to be making progress. They always seem busy and preoccupied with running the operation but yet nothing meaningful is actually happening. This type of bad leader lacks the focus and attention to detail needed to drive the team in a committed and dedicated fashion. They simply cannot deliver on their obligations. Leadership is about results. The job of a leader is to improve performance. It takes grit and determination to make things happen. Great leaders know that intentions alone count for very little.
Leadership is a privilege. You have the responsibility to motivate an organization and team to success. You are responsible for delivering results, creating a positive environment and for motivating and developing people. When you stop and think about the weight of responsibility you have it can be humbling, not to mention daunting. Bad leadership erodes an organization and damages the happiness of people. Make the choice to be better. Aspire to be a great leader. You'll be pleased with the results.