I caught a conversation the other day where leadership was the main topic and what it really meant to be a leader - either a successful or terrible one. Im sure if we all think over people we have worked with in the past (or current) there are always a couple of stand outs among them that you don’t even hesitate to say that they were not only exceptional leaders, but also mostly likeable and people you respect and admire, and more often that not, enjoyed working with.
So what are the core traits of a leader?
In an exercise I have done in multiple workshops in the past it boils down to 6 core areas, all of which seem quite obvious, but there are many layers and examples we can all think of where both sides of these traits can be an advantage to achieving the business goals and the team goals that they are pushing for.
Communication - top of the list. This breaks in to 4 sub-areas:
The ability to share the key information (the what), succinctly and in a way that is collaborative with your team is critical.
Diplomacy yes, and pragmatism are part of this, but its the style in how things are said is actually more important. A leader can direct or share information that might be challenging for the team, but if its said in a calm, considered and inclusive way, it can be the difference between having a team behind you or walking away with scepticism or concerns. Reassuring and direct, straight forward uncomplicated communications are seen as most effective - i.e. keeping it simple and not waffling lots of blurb or management speak!
the Why - also imperative, is providing context around the tasks and objectives being sought.
constructive feedback - being able to direct and ask questions that leads you team to think the problem through or achieve the results you want and when they need to change content or behaviour to be able to communicate it in a way that feels positive and supportive, and not impatient, terse or creating stress or anxiety. Criticism can be communicated in a positive way that doesn’t subordinate those on your team or make them feel small and insecure about their skills.
Leading by example -
roll up your sleeves and get stuck in when necessary - the best leaders will get stuck in and work with the team if required, but pull back when necessary to let the team get on with things. They understand the different lenses and aspects of a challenge or situation and by taking all points in to consideration are then able to lead the team through the course with an assurance that drives confidence and productivity within the team
macro not micro! Stepping back and not suffocating their team - giving people room to breathe and flourish, whilst quietly keeping an observant overacting view on how things are going - this is one of the toughest! The ability to be close enough to the detail, but not swooping down to the coal face to micromanage your team, yet still having a full clear view of all the different factors that are in motion.
building pace and momentum around themselves is a default. High energy and enthusiasm as well as a deep and brand knowledge and a constant curiosity for learning are what drives these individuals. They don’t see situations that are new to them as a threat, but as one for an opportunity to learn something and assist their team in deciphering the suitable path.
infuse passion and motivation implicitly through unwavering focus and drive.
Creativity and challenge - being able to create a little bit of tension that drives creativity within a team. These enable innovative thinking and solutions that may otherwise become blockers. Empowering a team to always strive for something beyond what they are doing is a further factor that creates a productive, engaged and collaborative workforce. Allowing them to think that they have reached perfection will only create lethargy and people to sit back on their laurels, thus allowing others around them to labour frenetically around them to get something done.
Decision makers - this takes courage and is critical to success. The ability to make a clear decision and articulate why to the team (communication to bring them with you!) is often seen as a no brainer and yet can so often be an issue. Phrases like 'being accountable' or 'sitting on the fence' are often paired with decision making and its where a lot of frustration the builds in teams surfaces the most often. By contrast - managing by committee or being fearful of putting a stake in the ground and taking a standpoint creates an environment of indecision, buck-passing, lack of accountability and arse-covering through the whole team, and ultimately will drive a project to standstill.
Vision (could be paired also with communication and/ or Passion) - setting the scene, context and objectives for the overarching goals and strategic impact that the project or approach is looking to achieve and why. In being able to instil this clarity within your team and taking time to pulse check back against it, is fundamental. With a clear vision, the team can get behind this and become a driving force behind the leader; the cogs to the wheel so to speak.
Authenticity - being congruent with your thoughts, words and actions. Not gossiping being peoples, backs, having clear and transparent goals, that don’t cause doubts as to ulterior motives and undermining activities. Ego is not at play here. The best leaders know they are good and confident in what they do, and so they don’t need to constantly pull rank, undermine or step on people to achieve their goals.
Finally I would add that I have found that the most successful leaders or bosses have taken the time to know their team : they spend time with them, get to know them, know what motivates them and what makes them tick.
If you see changes in their behaviour then its much easier to chat to them and support them or mentor them. Expecting them to just turn up to work and do the job is not enough. People need to feel that you are investing in them and that you are interested in their career progression and who they are as individuals and what they are doing. BE present and visible, not tucked away in an ivory tower - walk the floor, spend time chatting, be visible and make time for people on a regular basis to approach you, a sort of weekly 'openhouse'. Many businesses are heavily driven by hierarchy, but this doesn't mean that you can't be personable and take an interest!
Richard Branson is famous for putting his staff at the centre of every business, as he recognises that without them he can’t get the job done, that they are his best asset. When people feel undervalued this is most often due to leadership or executive teams focusing primarily and solely on the targets, numbers and hard aspects of running the business and projects and not keeping in touch with their biggest investment and asset - their people.
"An exceptional company is the one that gets all the little details right. And the people out on the front line, they know when things are not going right, and they know when things need to be improved. And if you listen to them, you can soon improve all those niggly things which turns an average company into an exceptional company." Richard Branson