When you think of great leaders – today and throughout history, in business, politics, sports or the arts – certain traits and capabilities tend to make them stand out. They practice leadership behaviors that go well beyond what we typically expect from managers and administrators.
For all his quirks, Apple’s Steve Jobs was an innovator who inspired others to push the boundaries of creativity. In sports, the iconic Michael Jordan led his Chicago Bulls to championship after championship through the trust he built with his teammates as he encouraged them to new heights. John F. Kennedy, our 35th president, was one of this nation’s most inspirational leaders. He had the courage it took to make hard decisions – as shown when he faced down the Soviet Union over its attempt to place nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962.
Great leaders may not be born that way, but the behaviors that mark the best and lead to success can be developed and refined over time. Seven of the most important:
- Being grounded in ethics and integrity. Both are hallmarks of the most successful leaders – those who are deeply committed to doing the right things for the right reasons, even when it is difficult or unpopular to stay the course. This underscores the importance of adhering to high principles and professional standards, and doing so with consistency.
- Building trust. This isn’t something that just comes automatically to a leader. It’s something the most successful know they must earn. To that end, they take actions that gain them respect. They involve others in decisions that affect them rather than making unilateral calls. They are transparent and consistent, so subordinates know what to expect (and can count on it). Successful leaders act in a way that makes others proud to be associated with them.
- Bringing others along. It’s important to help others grow and achieve, and the best leaders serve as both coaches and teachers in pursuit of that goal. It takes looking at individuals and treating them as such in understanding their distinct needs, abilities and goals. At the same time, it takes working with people to help them uncover what they do best and ways to strengthen their assets.
- Inspiring those around you. The most successful leaders have a vision that motivates people to follow. But it’s not just the vision – for whatever future or goal or purpose – that inspires. It’s expressing it with passion and energy, and backing it with strong beliefs and values that count. It’s a matter of exciting people to be equally engaged and uplifted at being a part of something bigger and better.
- Making decisions. Anybody can make a decision. But it takes a great leader to take on the hard decisions with authority and confidence. Success here comes from balancing emotion with reason, enlisting input from others to ensure the move forward is well-informed, yet acting with authority. Even when decisions may be unpopular, a leader who honestly communicates the rationale behind them is in a better position for long-term success.
- Encouraging innovation. Innovative organizations give their people the space to stretch their creative wings. The culture to make this happen is set by leaders who encourage the art of “possibility” thinking and looking at issues from different perspectives – and who share how such practices have worked for them. The most successful leaders also understand the importance of training people in being more innovative through questioning, observing, experimenting and networking, and to that end ensure that employees get work time each week to do outside-the-job creative endeavors.
- Reward achievement. No one likes to see their hard work and accomplishments go unrecognized. The best leaders make a habit of calling out people who make contributions to the organization, and they do it in in both a timely and appropriate manner. This may be expressed through a tangible reward or a public acknowledgement. Either way, it is a function of a leader who not only sets and shares specific expectations, but shows what happens when individuals meet them. Most importantly, the best leaders deliver what they promise when that happens.
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