A leader sees greatness in other people.
He nor she can be much of a leader if all she sees is herself.
– Maya Angelou
Invincible Buldog. Business Team Sucess [Illustration].
Curiously enough, when people are asked about what they like to see in a good leader, many skip the technical skills part and jump to the popular soft skills. It seems that over the years, many people occupying a leader role may have had decent technical skills but low to non-existent personal attributes, and the latter are essential to successfully and harmoniously gain other people’s respect.
Leadership, according to the Merriam Webster’s dictionary is “the power or ability to lead other people”. During our lives we meet people who will become role models—as well as a source of inspiration— but they may not necessarily fall in the leader category.
The need for leadership skills is commonly found in organizations, politics, and certain movements—social, religious, intellectual, etc. The top traits that people expect from a person prior to granting him or her the status of leader worth being looked up to are:
1. Clear, respectful communication. Receiving vague or unclear instructions when you get a new assignment causes uncertainty and makes you spend more time on figuring out what to do, as well as asking questions. Good leaders know this and try to mitigate unclear instructions as much as possible. They try to make sure ambiguities that can become constraints are solved as soon as possible. They seek clear communication, not only to optimize time but to make sure that their team feels strong about what it needs to accomplish, without unnecessary distractions.
Also, good leaders are direct and transparent when it comes to providing feedback: they say what they mean and they mean what they say, while respecting people's needs and ideas. Potentially uncomfortable feedback to someone will be provided so improvement can be made—no fight, no harsh criticism, no double meaning—and it will likely be told in private. On the contrary, good news will be worth sharing and the relevant members will be given appropriate credit for it, making the success a collective one.
2. Ability to delegate. In line with the first point, good leaders work on their delegation skills. Everyone will benefit from having good workflows and communication channels. Delegating is not just about freeing up you time or just giving up tasks when you no longer can assume their responsibility. It is about properly assigning tasks to whoever is in charge so they can deliver the work in the best conditions possible and raise questions if needed—thus avoiding unnecessary last-minute surprises.
3. Emotional intelligence, empathy. For people to follow a leader, they need to feel that the leader is actively interested in their potential. They will start to care the minute they realise that a leader genuinely cares too. Active listening and empathy are needed to help good leaders take well-informed decisions as well as balance the needs of the organization and of each member of the team. With empathy, feedback and communication become an asset, not something to fear.
Grant, A. [@AdamMGrant]. [Tweet, rules for leadership].
4. Capacity to boost the team and identify the qualities of each member. Along with empathy, a good leader knows when it is time to sit down with a team member. This can be to discuss a personal situation and make necessary adjustments, for example, for that person's and the team's wellbeing. Good leaders also consciously make the effort to spot a team member's best traits and skills, enhancing them for the benefit of said member and, consequently, of the organization.
5. Skilled, passionate, eager learner. Although commonly missed when one is asked, one element that good leadership also requires is being skilled and proficient. Respect and admiration in a field that requires medium to high level of expertise comes from proven experience and knowledge. A team member will hardly value any advice on a specific field that comes from someone who is less knowledgeable than them. In addition, if such leaders are passionate about what they do—which hardly goes unnoticed—it is a bonus nudge toward establishing respect and admiration.
The above does not mean that a leader needs to know everything, but it is critical that the feedback and discussions they share have substance and are well understood by the receiver. This does not prevent a good leader from asking for help when needed nor from surrounding them with the best professionals possible, which is key to a successful organization.
6. Purpose and determination. Good leaders share strong motives and purposes for which they live. They believe in themselves and tend to be confident—not arrogant—in their ideas. All great projects start as an idea and it is the persistence, tenacity, and continuous effort that may lead them to more concrete concepts worth sharing with the world. But in the earliest stages, when no one else but one person knows about the potential of such an idea, it is crucial to stick to that idea and believe that it can work. Persistence and tenacity are part of a good leadership culture—persisting in good times and bad, and rarely giving up. To provide some data, almost 90% of the newly created startups fail for various reasons within the first five years of their creation. Leading is difficult and so it is to persist.
7. Decision making. Having too many choices is actually harder than a defined few. But what keeps business going and makes ideas succeeding is the capacity to decide “what to do next”, “how to do it” and “when”. That is when a leader’s expertise and vision is most valued: when they chose B, instead of A, C, D, or Z, even though the other options are potentially good as well. The fear of taking risks is a reality, but a good leader takes them regardless once the options, the context, and the given situation have been properly assessed.
[Conversation between Alice in Wonderland and the Cheshire cat] [Illustration].
8. Manage critical situations, leading by example. When things go wrong (because they sometimes do), good leaders are the first ones to get down to business and focus, first and foremost, on how to fix things. But they also encourage their team to do better, once they know how. Good leaders accept mistakes as being failures of their own, not only of one individual alone. Of course, once the problem is solved, proper meetings and feedback should take place, but, most importantly, each failure should be considered as an opportunity for everyone to improve—what has gone wrong, what could have been avoided, was there lack of supervision, or excess of responsibility?
Shmitz, S. (n.d.). Key to Success [Illustration].
9. Strategic vision, adaptability. The leader must have the capacity to identify and implement new changes within the organization when required. Accepting that change is inevitable can help an organization not to freeze when new measures are needed. Resisting change is usually an enemy of evolution and progress. New times bring new ways of working and require leaders to be open to those changes; the current pandemic era offers a good example of how changes are needed. Most organizations, having been forced to implement remote work at a fast pace, seemed eager to “go back to normal”, when the said "normal" has not been the same anymore. In the cases where remote work has proven to work, why not let it stay if that is what the teams want? Would not this make the team members feel seen and considered and likely boost their performance—salary talk aside?
Good leaders do not fear to integrate taking risks and innovation as part of the organization. A culture that embraces failure also promotes creativity and encourages new ideas.
10. Creativeness. It may not be the first thing to come to mind when thinking about a good leader, but being creative is part of the art of taking risks, the ability to cross boundaries. It also helps figuring out how to solve an issue that seems impossible to fix at first. Creativity comes hand in hand with strategic vision and adaptability. Not to mention that a creative environment calls for new ideas and allows people to feel secure when the time comes for them to participate, make proposals, or raise criticism.
Luckyvector. [A group of people collects the fruits of plants in the form of a light bulb idea] [Illustration].
Becoming a good leader, mastering all the traits described above plus others that may also be required under the circumstances is not an easy task. It takes time and hard ongoing work. Most of the time people are already so busy with imminent tasks they need to get done that they miss the important ones—the ones that are not immediate, but essential. The important ones make the difference, and are the reason why people stay in a specific project or organization (or not).
Considering the above, lack of trust and reliability in a leader leaves him or her with two incentives to retain and control people: money or fear.
In a rapidly changing world, where people are progressively starting to value time, flexibility, and fulfilment, more succulent salaries might not make up for the lack of personal time, sleep, and stress that comes with new responsibilities. Today, one of the main hardships that many companies and organizations face is how to retain their talent. It is no longer just about money.
Regarding the fear part, unfortunately, the famous Machiavelli quote “it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both” remains true for some organizations, political leaders, and movements, but we will not give them visibility in this article.
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