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5 Underacknowledged Traits of All Successful Leaders

People walking downhill with a leader

If you believe what is written, you will believe that all leaders are a cornucopia of contradictions.

You will be told that you have to be visionary and detailed; people and task-focused; commanding and engaging; risk-taking and failure-avoiding; kind and ruthless; thinker and action-focused. Some people think that they have all these qualities; they are the leaders who are well worth avoiding.

You will also be told that you have to be charismatic and inspirational to be a leader – the chances are that you have never had a boss who is truly charismatic and inspirational. Unfortunately, you cannot train charisma and medical science has not invented an inspiration transplant (yet). Fortunately, you do not need to be inspirational or charismatic to succeed.

There is no such thing as a leader who succeeds in every context: success is entirely contextual. You have to decode the success formula for your firm. You may like or loathe the solution. If you loathe what it takes to succeed where you are, move to a firm that fits your values and beliefs. You cannot win by playing to someone else’s rules.

After 30 years of working with and researching some of the best, and a few of the worst, leaders in business I have found five traits that are nearly universal in all successful leaders. Not all of them are obvious, which is wonderful news:

1. Respect

Machiavelli asked whether it was better for a leader to be feared or loved. He rightly suggested that leaders should not seek popularity, because popularity is fickle. Followers follow popular leaders only as long as they get what they want; as soon as trouble brews, followers abandon ship.

Machiavelli then suggests a few executions will keep the public in order – be cruel to be kind. Many leaders follow this advice. They start with a reorganization which sees a few executives leave in a form of ritual corporate execution.

Between fear and love, there is a third alternative: respect.

The respected leader is the one people want to work for, not the one they have to work for because of the vagaries of the assignment system. If you are a respected leader, you can recruit the best people onto your team. With the best team, you become the best performing leader.

2. Two ears and one mouth

All the best leaders, like salespeople, share the same physical trait: they have two ears and one mouth. And they use them in that proportion. The best way ahead is to listen at least twice as much as you talk.

This goes against perceived wisdom where we think of leaders as great orators and salespeople with the gift of the gab, making great pitches. In the 19th and 20th centuries, that might have been the right image, because leadership was all about command and control: the job of the boss was to tell, not listen.

In the 21st century, leaders are losing their coercive power. Instead of demanding compliance, you have to build commitment. You cannot build commitment by shouting at people. You have to take time to listen.

Listening is the path to strength, not weakness. By listening, you can understand what motivates the other side; what their hopes and fears may be and how you can influence them positively. You are gaining valuable intelligence. Once you really understand the other side, you can tailor your comments to elicit the right response and to reduce objections and opposition. Listening lets you talk less, but better.

Listening means learning to ask smart questions instead of giving smart answers. The more you listen, the more you learn. Listening is a good leader’s secret weapon, learn to use it well.

3. Vision

Visionary leaders are often dangerous. For every visionary leader who says that they can lead you to the ‘Promised Land’, there are normally ten more visionaries who promptly march you into the desert.

But the essence of leadership is taking people where they would not have gone by themselves. That means you need a vision, without being a wild-eyed visionary. Surprisingly, this is possible.

For a leader, a vision is nothing more than a story in three parts:

  • This is where we are
  • This is where we are going
  • And this is how we will get there

Most of us can tell a simple story like that. And if you want to make your story really motivating, you add a fourth element: “and here is your vital role in helping us get there.” In other words, make the story personal and relevant to whoever you are talking to.

No one really gets excited about increasing earnings per share and boosting the CEO’s bonus, but they will get excited about building new skills and accomplishing something. Sharing your vision will help them do these things.

4. Decisiveness

If you really want to demoralize your team, be indecisive. Make decisions slowly and late; be unclear in communicating your decision and then change your mind. This way you can maximize confusion among your team and commit them to having to do huge amounts of redundant work and rework against tight deadlines.

In the old world (20th century), decisiveness was about bosses barking out orders.  Good decision making is no longer about “tell and sell”. If you want to build commitment, involve your team in the decision-making process from the start. That way, they will understand not just the what, but also the why of the decision.

They will understand the trade-offs; they will own the decision; they will be committed to making their decision work, as opposed to sabotaging their boss’s decision. There is a real risk they may come up with a better solution than the one you first thought about, but that is a risk well worth taking.

5. Letting go

Learn to trust your team. You do not have to do it all yourself, nor do you have to take on all the toughest challenges.

As a leader, you have to recruit the best team. If you have the best team, they should be able to take on the toughest challenges for you. The more you trust your team, the more that they will learn and grow. If you keep all the most interesting work for yourself, they will not learn or grow or become more motivated.

By letting go you force yourself to focus on what a leader should do: setting direction, recruiting and developing the team; securing resources and budget; dealing with conflict and resistance from elsewhere and managing workloads.

Letting go is the idle way to success – you work less and let your team shine more. They will be grateful to you for your trust and will respond with strong performance. You win, they win.