What qualities do good leaders have? Well, historically we may have said that the qualities of a leader should be a long list of adjectives that included confidence, charisma, strength, innovation and vision. In our mind’s eye, that leader was most likely a man.
There are multiple kinds of good leadership. You can be a spiritual leader who focuses on positive attitudes. You can be an ethical leader with goals to do what is right. You can be a team leader who excels at inspiring their employees to work harder. Yet, despite all these differences, the "ideal leadership quality list" tends to focus on the skills and character of a Machiavellian leader. Their leadership style is defined by their ability to control their team and their characteristics drastically change pending work performance. If the company and its people are performing well, the leader is pleased. If not, the leader becomes more authoritative and duplicitous, a common leadership characteristic in business today.
But now, questions have surfaced as to the effectiveness of authoritative leadership. There are concerns that this approach does not address what we need from our leaders in an increasingly complex and connected world. There is a call for a more "feminine" approach, and qualities once considered "soft" are gaining more credibility. These qualities, often dismissed in the past as signs of weakness, are becoming increasingly important as we acknowledge our disappointment with current leadership.
What are the qualities that define this new form of leadership, and how do they impact the workplace? Here are the five must-have traits for any great leader.
We are instructed to leave our emotions at home. That there’s no room for “feelings” in decision-making and business. But at the end of the day, when we’ve reviewed the data over and over again and have asked others for their opinions, our best counsel is our gut feeling. Bombarded with the pressure to make decisions quickly and wisely, leaders often seek the counsel of trusted colleagues. Yet, the greatest resource for making sound decisions lies within us: it's our intuition.
Highly complex situations do not lend themselves to cognitive processing alone. Research in neuroscience tells us that the amount of storage in our working memory is limited. We need input from all parts of the brain to manage highly complex decisions. We also need to determine when is enough is enough. Leaders gather data and seek input but at some point, they reach the over-thinking tipping point. That’s the point where the time needed to gather more data and input exceeds the value of actually making the decision. They must decide and move on.
Intuition plays an essential role in decision-making within rapidly changing environments, like if there are contradictions in the data, ambiguity due to lack of data or decisions that center on people (hiring, firing or political decisions). Ironically, the fact is that for some decisions, data alone isn’t enough.
I interviewed Shelley Row, PE MBA, author of "Think Less Live More: Lessons from a Recovering Over-Thinker," to better understand how intuition plays a role in decision-making. In her book, Shelley interviewed leaders from a range of backgrounds and explored how different leaders use data differently:
“Leaders trained as engineers and lawyers tended to be analytical but, as they moved into leadership positions where there is more ambiguity, they learned to also trust their gut. On the opposite end of the spectrum, were political leaders and entrepreneurs. They work in highly complex environments for which there is little data. These leaders relied extensively on the wisdom from their experience and their intuition. It is important to point out that none of these leaders rely just on gut feel. They use all the data at their disposal, input from a wide range of sources and they listen to the voice inside their head. It is the combination of cognition and intuition that is powerful.”
At the end of the day, the information we gather can only take us so far. It’s our intuition that helps us as leaders to make decisions.
We don’t normally associate compassion with business or effective leadership. In fact, it may be one of those "feminine" qualities that's considered to be a weakness. Yet, when we look at the pressing issues facing most of the world today, compassion emerges as a strength.
Every day, we risk becoming more distant from each other as technology replaces face-to-face human contact. Instead of building a real connection with a team member, we focus on the number of Twitter followers we have. We have become distant from each other on many levels, and though technology facilitates meeting a more expansive network of people, it also impedes the nurturing of those relationships. Our relationships become shallow, lacking a true understanding of others. Great leaders must use their compassion to bridge this gap and seek to understand and acknowledge others.
Who are the people on your team and what’s important to them? What are they hoping to achieve and how can you support their success? Compassionate leadership increases employee happiness and retention. It motivates people to work harder and produce great results.
In order to be an effective leader, you need to be open to the opinions and ideas of others; people who may not commonly share the same vision, thoughts and beliefs. This leadership skill leads to openness, which helps you in strategic planning and assists you in decision-making.
Because we are so busy, it’s easy to take the quickest path to either making decisions or determining the best resolution to issues. We can do that on our own without the input of others, especially others outside our inner circle. But if you look at the history of bad business decisions, you will see that they were often made in a bubble where the person in the leadership role did not reach out and seek the opinions of others. (Remember Enron?)
When we have an inclusive mindset, we are open to listening to others and challenging our own assumptions. We are willing to confront our own character bias and see that we may not have all the answers. We can admit that we aren’t always right and acknowledge and respect the intelligence of others.
Good leaders are curious and life-long learners. They are always looking to improve their skills and increase their knowledge base. This curiosity leads them to be open to learning from others and seeking the opinions of others. Curious leaders also instill the same zest for learning with their employees, which creates a culture of collaboration and cooperation. This type of organizational culture provides the foundation for innovation and creativity, which helps companies thrive.
In contrast, when leaders lack curiosity, they will move quickly to resolve issues because of their discomfort with ambiguity. They won’t take the time to solicit feedback and/or get more information. This limits a person's potential to become a successful leader.
Humility may be too easily dismissed as a leadership quality because people associate it with weakness. We are accustomed to charismatic and confident leaders who never seem to have trouble talking about their accomplishments and career. But humility is an important quality for a leader. According to several leadership experts, humility simply means understanding your strength and weakness, as well as recognizing the strength and weakness of others.
Angela Sebaly, co-founder and CEO of Personify Leadership and author of "The Courageous Leader", adds that humble leaders are focused on the big picture of mission and team rather than themselves. According to Sebaly, "Humility is about minimizing the self and maximizing the bigger purpose you represent. When you think about humility in that way, it becomes a vital competency in leadership because it takes the focus from the 'I' to 'We.' Leaders with humility engage us and give us a sense of identity and purpose."
Humble leaders come across as down to earth, accepting of their own shortcomings as well as the shortcomings of others. They don’t intimidate others but engage them and motivate them to also recognize their strengths and weaknesses and work to reach their potential. With this leadership, employees aren’t afraid to share all their experiences and learn from their mistakes.
It’s definitely time for a new approach to leadership. The traditional hierarchical approach is not aligned with our current values and needs. Embracing these five leadership qualities will prepare you for the leadership of tomorrow.
Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed, is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker focused on women's advancement in the workplace. A former corporate executive and CEO, Bonnie is the author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, and co-author of Lost Leaders in the Pipeline: Capitalizing on Women's Ambition to Offset the Future Leadership Shortage.