Looking at Five Inherent Traits of Strong Leaders

Why is one nation’s head of state well-regarded for his positive energy and ability to inspire his countrymen, while another’s leader embraces discord and divisiveness? Why is one company’s CEO known for her creative mind, but an abrasive management style that holds the organization back, while another’s passion and decisiveness move his people to embrace positive change?

Not every leader is a good one, and even those who have some of the requisite characteristics for greatness may not have them in sufficient balance to truly earn them the sobriquet of “great.”

Mountains of content have been written about what the best leaders look like and the hard skills and soft ones that they are either born with or develop to achieve leadership success. Of course, there are learned skills, acquired through education and experience – from finance and business operations to the ability to speak a foreign language. And the soft skills can’t be underestimated, like the ability to communicate and persuade others or showing a strong work ethic.

But, beyond “skills,” per se, leaders possess certain innate characteristics or traits that occur naturally or can be cultivated – and should be cultivated among managers who show the potential to be our next generations of leaders.

The essential traits of a leader go beyond the baseline givens of integrity, intelligence or emotional maturity. Some of them are hard-wired within natural leaders. Others need to be cultivated and polished over time. They include:

·      Positive energy. It’s far more productive to build up than to tear down and criticize. People who can stay upbeat, optimistic and encouraging even when circumstances are at their most discouraging will win legions of loyal followers.

·      The ability to energize others. It’s called emotional impact, and those who can make their own positive energy contagious to others come out on top.  Can you make people feel good about what you’re trying to achieve? Maya Angelou put it this way: “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

·       Decisiveness. This is nothing more than being able to act decisively on tough decisions, without waffling, without over-analyzing, without second-guessing. Leaders are able to make the tough calls because they’ve got the confidence to do so. It’s not an inherent trait, but one that that must be encouraged over time.

·      The ability to get things done. This is another trait that must be honed over time and requires self-confidence to carry through. It’s the rare leader who can execute and is also an effective strategist: A survey by PwC found only 8 percent of top leaders were effective at both.

·    Passion. It’s the passion that leaders have for their people, their work and their lives that produces the energy that drives everyone forward. If vision is “what you see” as a leader, passion makes what you see important.

Ultimately, these traits are bound together to create a total, inimitable persona that stands for something more than just “business as usual.”  Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz put it this way: “As a business leader, my quest has never been just about winning or making money. It has also been about building a great, enduring company, which has always meant striking a balance between profit and social conscience.”

Three tips for effective leaders

There are few things greater than the feeling you get building and leading a successful business. Throughout my career, I have had the pleasure of establishing and growing a variety of mining firms into successful companies and I have also lead some not so successful ones.

While this feeling of accomplishment is grand, it is only dwarfed by the amount of gratitude that leaders must feel and show the dedicated team of professionals they work with. This includes the executive team, managerial staff and employees; in short, the people who are able to take your corporate vision and make it reality. 

Over the last 30 years, I have learned some valuable lessons when it comes to being an effective and efficient leader. I have also witnessed leaders in other sectors exhibit truly admirable leadership skills.

Ian Telfer’s 3 leadership tips

Building a team

Building the right team is as important as building a successful business.

No man is an island, as the old adage goes.  Which is why in order for a business to achieve full potential it needs a robust team of executives who are able to bring unique skill sets and perspectives to the boardroom.

Don’t be afraid to delegate

The ability to wisely and effectively delegate is a quality less talked about than others and yet it’s crucial to a leader’s success. Too many business leaders want to micromanage and oversee every detail of the company, which can delay important deadlines and leave the executive team feeling undervalued.

A leader should be in charge of the overall direction of the business.  They are looking ahead, steering the course, and making needed corrections to avoid getting off track. A leader who is too caught up in every minutia of the company is apt to lose sight of the big picture and may even fail to see that their company has veered off course until it is too late.

It’s also been proven that leaders who give important responsibilities to their team and employees, along with the freedom to complete the task their way, foster a positive and healthy workplace. Additionally, this builds team innovation and idea levels, morale, and overall satisfaction.

Assigning responsibilities and delegating work establishes levels of trust that are crucial when working in any business environment.

Foster open communication

It’s important to let business teams feel free to share results and findings with you. Communication is also key to ensuring your team is able to fulfill their assignments and responsibilities. Being able to clearly and succinctly describe what you want done is very important. If you can’t relate your vision to your team, you won’t all be working toward the same goal.

From my experience, if you want an organization to succeed, you and your team have to master the art of clear inter-communication. In my opinion, implementing well-organized paths that facilitate easy group communication and collaboration improves the likelihood that a given business will enjoy success.

Yes You Can

Leadership is an uneven skill. 

Except for the command and control form, you cannot impose leadership on others.  Things that are imposed are opposed.  Leadership success is more about helping others to succeed by clearing obstacles from their path.

One of the important obstacles to remove is the person’s innate insecurity.  Most weak leaders enhance rather than reduce this impediment to success.  Why?  Because telling someone they cannot succeed is easy and adds power to the purveyor of the thought.  The great decider.  The Judge!

This came again to me while reading a book I received for Christmas.  “Legends, Icons and Rebels” by Robbie Robertson, songwriter and guitarist with The Band.  Many of the performers discussed in the book received negative feedback early in their career.

A grade school teacher told Elvis Presley, “You have no talent for music.”  A high school teacher graded Brian Wilson’s music study C-.  The Beach Boys later recorded it. ” Surfin’”  Bob Dylan received an “F” in music appreciation.

This, of course is not unfamiliar.  Einstein was bad at math.  Fred Smith received a C- for a business school project that essentially outlined what FEDEX would eventually become.  Tris Speaker said, “Babe Ruth will regret the day he gave up pitching.”

A position of authority and perhaps special knowledge never gives a person the right or the ability to estimate the future performance of another.  No one can know what motivates the other, nor can they know the subtle knowledge involved in pursuing what the person sees.

People pursing difficult and not so clearly defined outcomes do not need to hear about the failure potential.  They likely have plenty of that already in their mind.

It is not to say that only negative things are said.  There are many inspirational teachers and leaders.  When she was young, Joni Mitchell saw herself to be an artist not a musician.  The guidance she received was a little different from the others.  One of her grade school teachers told her, “If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words.”

Her debut album, Song To A Seagull,  included a dedication to her Grade 7 teacher,  “This album is dedicated to Mr. Kratzman who taught me to love words.”

Try this idea instead of a self indulgent critique.

If you think you can, you might.
If you think you can’t, you’re right

Negative ideas limit.  As parents, employers, bosses and friends, avoid the negative.  Be especially careful to avoid self talk that is negative.  Keep the “might” in play.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.