The idea that leaders are born is a myth. In reality, they’re molded through years of hard work and lives filled with little successes and very often failure. They learn to be strong leaders by navigating the tumult, spring-boarding off of the triumphs, and learning from setbacks.
In his book How to Lead, David Rubenstein wrote that most great leaders today were not superstars in their youth. While Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton and some other high-profile leaders seem to have been destined for greatness, the vast majority of great leaders overcame significant adversity—and spent two thirds of their lives preparing—to achieve their positions.
While there are no surefire shortcuts to catapult you to leadership prominence, studying past success can help you discover tools you can use. In this article, we’ll go through some of the most common, proven characteristics you can use as a roadmap to leadership to help during the first two thirds of your journey.
7 Qualities That Make a Great Leader
There are countless attributes that make a great leader. These seven common traits make the top of the list because anyone can emulate and learn them to enhance their leadership skills.
The ability to develop focus across your team is crucial. Focus helps to create unity of effort for everyone involved, keeping your team on course and within scope.
In his book Call Sign Chaos; Learning to Lead, James Mattis recounts how he provided focus across his entire team by communicating vision in the form of commander’s intent—the reason behind the objective. To provide focus, this intent must pass intact through all layers of the organization, down to those who will do the work. By giving both the objective and its purpose, you foster a culture in which your team can operate with autonomy. This in turn enables them to offer their own perspectives and creativity to achieve the objective.
In a project management setting, you should be able to deliver clear, simple guidance to every person involved in the success of your project. For instance, you may say, “We will create an innovation team in order to develop and execute the strategy for modernizing legacy systems.” The critical part of this sentence is “in order to…” This, according to Mattis, is where your intent must be clarified.
Once you form the innovation team, its members will understand what they’re working toward. Note, however, that the intent doesn’t attempt to tell them how to accomplish their task. The intent guides what is to be accomplished—and leaves the how to the best minds for the task. This leaves room for creativity and inspires confidence in the team’s abilities. Building a culture of operating from commander’s intent brings the full force of the team to solve problems and achieve the objective.
Nearly everyone understands the importance of effective communication—but putting it into practice is sometimes easier said than done. As a program or project manager, communicating effectively can mean the difference between success and failure. For a lesson on communication, we can look to one of the greatest communicators of our time: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As with all great communicators through history, he was a great listener and astute observer. He was skilled at reading the moods, dynamics, attitudes, values, and concerns of those with whom he was communicating. In fact, King’s famous I Have a Dream speech was an impromptu departure from his written notes based on his reading of the crowd and understanding of the dynamics and values of the civil rights movement.
In addition to having strong listening and observation skills, great communicators also tend to have these traits:
- Honest. Your team needs to trust that you mean what you say in order to truly listen to and retain the information.
- Personable. Deal with people one-on-one. Even when you address the group, show them that you care for the individual.
- Open minded. Opposing views provide a broad perspective. Engage with team members who hold dissenting opinions—not to change their mind but to understand their ideas.
- Knowledgeable. Know what you want to communicate and communicate what you know.
In order to have an effective, unified team, you need consensus—and that requires compromise. Many people interpret compromise as weakness, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It is only through compromise that truly diverse teams can join together to solve the toughest problems.
Finding compromise can bring a distracted team together as a stronger, more cohesive unit while maintaining the strengths of diverse thought and solutions. Relying only on the single intellect of a team’s leader creates a single point of failure. The team with a consensus as its core, however, draws on everyone’s creativity to accomplish objectives.
One of the quickest ways to compromise and build consensus is to acknowledge that you may not be the smartest person on the team—and you’re certainly not an expert in all the subject areas needed on the project. Listen to the experts’ ideas and acknowledging when they are better or different in a good way. Even if you know a certain path is effective, choosing team consensus will likely lead to better performance and a better outcome.
Statistically, most of us come from humble origins. If you don’t, this may be a difficult leadership trait to learn, but that makes it all the more important. Remembering that you are in the service of others—your customers, teammates, leaders, etc.—can help keep you grounded.
The CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, believes that humility is a critical leadership trait, “Not allowing yourself to become insular is very important—maybe the most important thing, I think, as a CEO.” At every echelon of leadership, humility keeps us in touch with the people we lead. Sincere humility will help earn the respect of your team members, peers, and leaders alike.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was known for his down to earth, no glitz work ethic. From his days at the United States Military Academy to his tenure in the White House, he approached leadership as hard work. Eisenhower had a reputation with his troops for frequently toiling alongside them. Later, during his presidency he was quoted as saying “I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion and conciliation and education and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know.”
It’s important to work as hard—if not harder—for your team as they are working for the objective. Team members will be more effective if they know the entire team is pulling, not with you as the figurehead, but with you at the oars. Working hard with them shows them you believe strongly in that objective and are willing to sacrifice for it and for their collective success.
Of course, much of what a leader does goes unseen by the team. Take time to share what goes on at the strategic level—in addition to appreciating the work you do behind the scenes, they’ll appreciate the transparency. When time and circumstances permit, strive to work alongside the team to solve problems and make progress toward mission accomplishment.
You can’t be a good leader if you’re only leading for yourself. Selfless leadership means focusing on both your mission’s success and your team’s success. You have to believe that everyone gains when you reach the objective.
To remind himself of this principle, President Ronald Reagan had this inscribed on his oval office desk: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
I’ve found that to be the case in numerous leadership roles throughout a long and broad career. Not only do team members respect leaders who give credit to their people, but placing/sharing credit with the team fosters an environment where ideas are free ranging and solutions abound.
Leading with empathy means bringing authenticity and transparency to your interactions with your team. It also means understanding what is important to individuals and the team as a whole and responding to ensure their wellbeing. Bringing empathy to your daily interactions will build trust in the team and a covenant relationship with its members.
One of the best ways to show empathy is to regularly seek and catch someone doing good and reward them for their effort. The reward can be as simple as a comment thanking them or a short, handwritten note acknowledging their effort. In each of his commands, from a destroyer captain to Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Admiral Jim Stavridis wrote a note a day acknowledging the good behavior or hard work of a crew/team member.
Putting the 7 Traits into Practice
Interestingly, each of these seven traits are integrally linked. A great communicator must have empathy, humility and focus; compromise requires communication, humility, empathy and more; the list goes on. The interdependence is complex for a reason. Each of these traits makes the other possible and the leader stronger. Likewise, removing one makes leadership harder by magnitudes and will likely cause failure.
Leaders are not born, they are made, and while the recipe can include a broad array of ingredients, there are key leadership traits, proven through time by those who have earned their way to the position, that each of us can use as a guide. These tools can be fundamental to building the skills you will need to bring vision and success to your team.
Learning leadership will be hard and, for most of us, a long process. But recognizing the common traits among those that came before us can make the learning a little easier and the outcome more certain.