Managing for Success

Qualities of a Leader
by David C. Baker

What are the characteristics of a leader that others want to follow? As you'll soon see, this list is a very personal one. In other words, we'd all come up with different elements when building the list. What I've tried to do, though, is to think of a complete leader. So I've asked myself this question: can I imagine a leader who isn't fair, for instance. The answer is obviously no. Each one of these, then, describes a leader's characteristics, any one of which might hinder their effectiveness if missing in any significant proportion. What I'd encourage you to do--maybe even before you read this list--is to first make up your own list and compare it with mine. (These are not presented in any particular order.)

A leader (who is simply the ideal form of a manager) is approachable, even with bad news. There's an evenness and steadiness that gives those who must approach him or her confidence that they won't be yelled at or blamed unnecessarily. At the heart of approachability is a willingness to listen first, before reacting to a particular piece of news.

A leader doesn't need to be a master spokesperson or have a Ph.D. in English, but they need to be able to articulate what they are thinking and feeling. A vision is not very useful unless it can be imparted to the others in a way that encourages others to join in that journey. It's not just the words, either, but the tone and the speech patterns and the actual words that are chosen. You might say that a leader doesn't have to be articulate, but they do need to articulate.

A leader needs to be the same person on the surface as they are deep inside. Employees can smell a rat, and that rat often takes the form of a leader who dons a suit when at work, trying to be somebody they aren't. The opposite of authentic is fake, as in fake friendship, fake listening, fake humor, fake caring, etc. Real leaders are the same person at work as they might be if you bump into them at the grocery store.

Not only are leaders able to articulate their vision, they actually do so. That's what I mean by communicative. They frequently have a positive impact on the environment by speaking clearly. They are present and involved and know what they want; communicating in ways that make a favorable impression on those they depend on to get the work done.

Leaders need a basic level of competence - just enough to understand the issues and evaluate talent. They do not need, however, to be the most technically competent of the group. If they are, that may mean they have hired helpers instead of experts. It could also mean that they were promoted for the wrong reasons (the best doer rather than the best manager). Let's face it: all over the world you can find well-run companies whose leaders are managing others who are far more competent than they are.

Leaders are confident, but this is a tough characteristic to describe with balance. That's because there's always a fair measure of self-doubt with leadership. On that other end of the spectrum, too little confidence makes for ineffective leadership. So there's a balance: enough confidence to inspire others, but not so much confidence that it leads them astray.

Decision Makers
Leaders who take too long to make decisions, or who don't make them decisively enough, are bound to struggle. To be an effective leader you must be a risk taker. In chaos and ambiguity, you must defy momentum and decide about direction and speed. It is fine--and even desirable—to tolerate ambiguity, but not to the extent that it prevents decisions from being made.

Leaders are direct. Not rude, but direct. The difference lies in the intent and result. Being direct is motivated by a desire to truly communicate in a means whereby everything that's necessary is included without any ancillary information or clutter. Hurting someone with directness is an example of poor leadership because it gets in the way of good, honest communication. Leaders are direct so that there's no confusion about what's being said or what's behind it.

Leaders are disciplined. That means that they get things done, do what they say, plan and execute. They can set goals, control their actions, and systematically work toward a set of accomplishments. It's not one unmet promise after another but real accomplishment, little by little.

A leader's fairness will most likely show up when he or she is alone with someone else, talking about a third party who isn't there. Will they represent the facts accurately? Will they allow an appropriate benefit of the doubt? Are they free from bias and dishonesty? Impartial and unprejudiced might be the best ways to describe a leader who is fair.

I've noted elsewhere that curiosity and gratitude are high up on the list of characteristics I'm looking for in a leader. Gratitude puts things in perspective because, first off, there's no false pride that something has really been earned. Grateful people understand that luck and circumstances are part of success, and they don't get too full of themselves.

What sort of list would this be if we didn't include honesty? And how could you work well for someone you didn't trust and respect? It's impossible. The last thing you need is a leader who says different things to different people, either because they're afraid of conflict or because they are trying to amass power.

Great leaders are hopeful, even when they know all the (often distressing) facts. That's not to say they're optimistic, which can mean that they're living in denial. Hope is having a belief in success that is well founded. Follow the reasonable plan and find predictable results at the outset.

Accepting of a Minority Position
The group, however you define that, is often wrong. There really is no safety in numbers. In fact, in nearly every moment of truth in the our history, a very small minority support an unpopular point until everyone else sees its value and jumps on the bandwagon. This means that a leader will often look wrong to the majority of those that he or she manages, and will have to be comfortable with that. Caution is called for, of course, because being in the minority doesn't mean you're right, either!

Leaders are flawed, and they know it. They are plagued by some consistently surfacing weakness and/or some significant failure in the past. Maybe they've been fired, had personal financial difficulties, or were at the helm of a department that failed spectacularly. In any case, their personal failures haunt them to some extent, keeping them humble and merciful.

Able to see patterns and think critically
The essence of intelligence is the ability to notice and categorize patterns. Leaders have that critical thinking skill and use it to analyze business problems. They see the possibilities and the outcomes like few others do, and therefore can set an appropriate course of action.

Curiosity is critical in a leader. Closely aligned with this are the ability to be perceptive, observant, and inquiring. All these attributes are utilized with a view towards the possibility that the leader is wrong. He or she holds a belief, but is always testing it against new information in new situations to further refine what they know and thus their convictions. Leaders are always on the hunt for new perspectives that can be brought to bear on their management.

By suggesting that a leader needs to be predictable, I don't mean to imply (negatively) that they always act the same way regardless of the circumstances. No, it's that people are able to anticipate how they might think and or act. Leaders are purpose-driven and their actions arise from an observable belief system.

A purposeful leader is one who does things for a reason. They have a plan that they can articulate, and are able to see to it that the seemingly random activities of a typical day contribute to the execution of the plan. Leaders are able see how small actions and accomplishments contribute to the big picture.

Good leaders know their own strengths and weaknesses, and understand how their actions affect others. They know that a strength, if overused, can become a great weakness, and they attempt greater balance and understanding. Good leaders can step outside themselves and make a relatively honest assessment of who they are and how they are conducting themselves.

You'd think that any leader who focuses entirely on work would be good to work for, but that's not the case. This kind of leader can expect too much of others, too. A good leader has a more balanced life, understanding the role of work and the role of life outside work. A leader with an interesting life outside work is better at work/life balance issues.

A leader must have a vision of the future. Otherwise, there's very little likelihood that individual initiatives will be purpose driven. Why does this department or firm exist? How could it be better? What role could we play in the larger picture that would bring greater enjoyment and impact?

How do you measure up?
How do you measure up against the leadership qualities on this list? Are there some things to work on? Do you see any patterns that hold you back or make you more effective? Great leaders instigate and nurture great culture, and great culture can really mean a harmonious working environment, greater productivity - and greater financial success - for your firm.

This article has been reprinted with permission from David C. Baker of ReCourses, Inc. ReCourses, Inc. is the leading management consulting firm that works exclusively with small service providers in the marketing industry. For more information, please

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