What makes a leader special? Not just good, but someone who stands out as most admired, who has become a revered legend? And what can you learn about your own leadership from these paragons of leadership?
We did a little experiment on this. As part of our work, we regularly ask people to think about leaders they most admire, whether those are business leaders, political leaders, or people in their personal lives. And we ask them to identify the three most important traits that cause these people to be admired. Over time, we’ve acquired a pretty good data base of what makes leaders stand out. As research for this blog post, we then went to the web, and looked at dozens of articles on what makes leaders exceptional – not just good, not just successful – but ‘remarkable’, in the words of one article. The traits in these articles are entirely consistent with those we hear from our clients. So here are the most admired traits of the really remarkable leaders.
- Leads from a purpose. The most admired leaders have a legacy they want to leave. It’s not just a mark on the organization’s bottom line. They have a deep inner mission to improve something profound in the world, and that is contagious. They touch the hearts of others.
- Remains present. Stand-out leaders listen intently to others and dialogue constantly. They stay in the game with others, and are persistent. They are in the trenches with their people, learning alongside them. They don’t float above the fray – they engage in the difficulties.
- Admits – and learns from – mistakes. The leader who is able to say “mea culpa”, who is the first to admit she blew it, who is willing to back away from a poor decision, is the one most admired. And if that leader can also use those painful moments to figure out what to avoid the next time around, so much the better! Humility reigns for the best leaders.
- Values others. Over and over, this theme emerges. The remarkable leaders sincerely value the ideas, personal differences, and work of others. Appreciation is their go-to response as they work with others. They make each person feel important. They create moments with others to carefully articulate what makes them so individually unique and valued.
- Develops others. Even beyond valuing people, perhaps the most appreciated trait of exceptional leaders is that they make it their business to develop everyone they touch. They share wisdom, they encourage, they mentor, no matter whether it is their own team members, or colleagues, or even those with whom they may have uncomfortable relationships. They work from giving – rather than withholding – mode. They see themselves as in service to others.
- Supports change. The memorable leaders don’t operate from a status quo; they are restless for improvements. At the same time, they are judicious in change, not change junkies. But what they do that sets them apart is that they help others through change. They may be visionary, but they know that change is work, and they bring people along through the entire process. They look for ways to adapt to make change better and more acceptable. And through it all, they remain the steady beacon for why the change is important.
- Exhibits courage. Stand-out leaders are not wimps, bending their principles to seek the path of least resistance. They are perseverant in the face of difficulty, and true to their values, regardless of the personal consequences. They stand up for others. They exhibit a confidence and moral strength that is unshakeable – and most importantly, that is grounded in fact and reality, not in their personal view of the world.
- Sets a tone. The most admired leaders not only personally exhibit all these wonderful traits. They create entire cultures around these traits, through their expectations of others. They hold others to a standard of norms that raises the cultural bar in the organization.
You’ll quickly notice something about all these ‘most admired’ characteristics of the memorable leaders. None of them have anything to do with the leaders’ actual professional accountability, nor even to creating value in the organization. Each of the things that makes a leader stand out is related to his or her emotional intelligence – an ability to be self-aware, to establish strong personal behaviors, and to focus on relationships with others. These are the real differentiators between a good leader and a great leader.
It’s not easy, as you progress as a leader, to really build these characteristics. A study by TalentSmart shows that the higher leaders go in their careers, the lower the average level of emotional intelligence. “Once leaders get promoted they enter an environment that tends to erode their emotional intelligence. They spend less time in meaningful interactions with their staff and lose sight of how their emotional states impact those around them,” states Dr. Travis Bradberry. Leaders who are increasingly isolated are not the ones who can excel.
So the bottom line is that it pays to start now. Build these behaviors through practice, through requests for feedback, and through genuine learning from mistakes. Get the behaviors ingrained, and never let them go as you progress in your career. You’ll be on your way to becoming a legend.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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