Leadership is one of the most discussed topics in business schools and MBA programs around the world—partly because it’s so elusive. What is leadership? What’s the difference between a bad leader and a good one? And what makes for a truly great leader?
This last question is what we’ll address in this article.
While there are many different leadership styles, there are five qualities that all great leaders share.
Gives (more than just orders)
Great leaders don’t just tell their teams what to do. They make it possible for them to do it. Above all, a strong leader is a giver—providing her or his teams with the tools they need to succeed. And excellent leaders do this on every level.
In terms of “the big picture”, they provide direction and vision that ensures that every member of the team is working in harmony towards the same goal. They keep people on track, prevent them from working at cross-purposes, and help them re-focus when necessary.
But on a more practical level, they also make sure that their people have the tools they need to get the job done—whether that’s adequate technical support, proper training and mentoring, or even simple everyday things like the right equipment to make it possible to get the job done efficiently.
A poor leader will just demand that his employees accomplish the goal. A good leader will point the way. But really great leaders go a step beyond this, clearing the path for their teams as they go.
Listens—and makes it safe to speak
There’s an old saying that goes “We have one mouth, but two ears—so we should listen twice as much as we speak.” While the anatomical reasoning here may be a little shaky, the basic idea contains a lot of wisdom. And while we should all try to listen more, it’s absolutely vital for leaders.
Great leaders listen to their teams. They do this, first of all, to get valuable insights and ideas that may not have occurred to them. But they also keep their ears open so that they can learn what they themselves might do better; they take on feedback and constructive criticism. And of course, they’re always listening for problems and issues as well—so that they can make their employees happier and more productive.
But it’s not just a matter of asking for ideas at the all-hands meeting or telling staff “my door is always open.” Top leaders know that they need to prepare the ground for listening. This is because people are often intimidated by telling their boss what’s really on their mind (and so they say nothing).
Great leaders go out of their way to solicit feedback from their employees and also to create an environment of trust and safety. As a result, their teams open up, because they know that they can share their concerns and their ideas freely.
And lastly, great leaders even listen for what isn’t said. They pay attention to body language and read between the lines. That way, they can pick up on sensitive issues beneath the surface that employees might be hesitant to voice—and then gently draw them out.
Finds, develops…and trusts
There’s nothing worse than a micro-manager. Why? Well, first of all, leaders who try to handle every single detail by themselves are bound to be inefficient. But what’s even worse, micromanagement demonstrates a lack of trust in your team.
A great leader in business is a bit like a world-class football coach: they know how to scout top talent—and then to develop it. And they’re always trying to stack their teams with people who have potential to think and act for themselves. They work to give them the support and training to take on tough tasks—and make tough decisions—without having to be told what to do at every step of the way.
And once they have someone who is capable of handling a job independently, and has been given the tools and training to do it, they actually trust that person to take care of business.
This doesn’t mean just ignoring what’s going on in the office. This is an active process that requires a lot of conscious attention and sensitivity. For instance, it’s important to be sure that you don’t give someone a task that they aren’t yet ready to handle. That’s setting them up for failure.
Trusting your team means being acutely aware of their abilities as well as their limitations. You need to know when it’s alright to take a more hands-off approach and when your direct supervision is needed.
But when it’s the right thing to do, trusting your team to get the job done on their own brings huge benefits. It will make your company more efficient and effective. It will free you up to work on those projects that only you can handle. And most importantly, it will help your team become more skilled, capable, and independent—bringing out their true greatness.
No manager wants to work with obedient drones. A good leader produces loyal, competent workers. But a truly great leader creates other leaders.
Shows the way
Great leaders need to have vision—to know where a company or organization is going. They also need to have a strategy to get there. But even more importantly, they have to communicate this to their team through everything they do. That can mean leading by example: by always doing exactly what you tell your employees to do. If the company has a community service initiative, for instance, then the CEO needs to be first in line to sign up for that charity golf tournament.
But it also means setting the benchmark for ethical behavior in the office. A leader who talks about the importance of, for example, civility—and then talks down to a member of staff in a meeting—isn’t much of a leader at all.
And finally, great leaders give direction in humble, practical ways as well. They offer innumerable daily acts of coaching by giving feedback and direct training. And they also model those skills and behaviors that their team needs to develop in order to perform at their best.
Through what they say and do, great leaders show their employees what excellence looks like—and inspire them to achieve it.
Knows when to follow
Finally, one quality that all great leaders share is that they know how to follow—so that they can learn.
Consider this: the only person who refuses to ever follow anyone else is the one who thinks he already has all the answers.
Does that sound like a true leader to you?
The greatest, most visionary leaders are the ones who are always open to new ideas, to learning new things; they’re continually sharpening their skills and searching out new and better ways to get the job done.
And this means being willing to set aside, for a moment or two, their authority and position as leaders, and follow. Wise leaders know that this sort of humility is essential if they want to learn from others—so that they can become better leaders. This kind of openness and flexibility is what sets the truly great leaders apart from the rest.
Developing leadership skills is a lifelong process, and one that requires dedication, consistency, and focused effort. But although it’s hard work, putting these principles of leadership into practice every day brings great rewards—for your team, your customers, and your organization. And it also gets easier with time. Because eventually, instead of just being what you do at work, these five qualities will be who you are.