Five traits of a true leader

04 Jul
July 4, 2013

Leadership is complex, so we’re told – but is it really?  We hear that “leaders are born, not made,” we hear about leadership traits and leadership styles and a whole pile of other things that supposedly make someone a great leader.  But does it have to be that complex?  Perhaps there’s a simpler approach – one that we can all align to.

Story

Every time the elections come round the conversation turns to leadership.  We ask if the people on the TV and radio seeking our votes are good leaders and we wonder if they would lead the country in the right way.  It’s the same for business.  Good leaders need to do so many things but there are just five things that they must do to become a true leader.

The five traits I’ll describe in my blog are assembled from years of working with the top leaders in large companies.  They did many things well but they all displayed the five traits I’ll explain in this post.

I’ll be honest in saying that my approach to assembling these traits contained no science or detailed research.  When you’ve seen hundreds of top leaders over the years, some of them on seven-figure salaries plus bonuses, then you know you’re looking at the best and it doesn’t take a genius to work out why they are great leaders.

But the SWAG* approach I took delivered remarkably similar results to many of the more formalised studies so I’m comfortable that what I’m about to tell you will hold up to scrutiny.

Here are the five traits:

  • Clarity
  • Consistency
  • Commitment
  • Passion
  • Authenticity

That’s it – just five traits.  Let’s explore these in more detail.

Clarity

This is the absolute number one trait – bar none.  We want leaders to deliver their message clearly and without ambiguity.  They need to make sure we know what’s important in the business, what’s unimportant, why the business is seemingly ignoring certain priorities, where the money will be allocated – and why, why we’re not getting a new IT system – and so on.  The list is long but all we need is clarity.  What are we doing, which direction are we going in and who’s helping to support?  The rest we can work out for ourselves.

Ambiguity in any form will frustrate people and should be avoided.  The same goes for “pink and fluffy” promises.  Leaders should also avoid ultra-detailed and pedantic messages as generally these cannot be understood.

One business I worked with had developed clarity to an art form.  The £multi-billion electricity generating business had clarity in just three numbers: 0, 63 and 9.  I won’t explain the details of these numbers but to everyone in the business it was crystal clear what the business was trying to do and what was important.  Brilliant!

Consistency

Once a leader is clear about what’s important it’s essential they maintain the consistency of that message – at all times.  If a leader says something is important then you should hear and see this message everywhere.  When Bill Clinton was first running for president he changed his speeches daily.  In one city he’d talk about unemployment, in another it would be government spending and so on.  He was making little headway.  Then one day one of his advisors pulled him up hard and said: “It’s about the economy, stupid!”  Bill changed his speeches to talk about the economy at every opportunity and placed local issues in this context.  Once he’d done that he was being consistent and that won him the race.

If a business leader fails to be consistent then they will potentially introduce impulses or surprises into the business and this is never good.  Failing to be consistent creates uncertainty and uncertainty brings with it a whole range of organisational issues.  State what you’re about and stick to it!

Commitment

Saying something is important is great, repeating that message over and over again is essential but it’s absolutely vital that you put your money where your mouth is and deliver.  We want to see promises and policies come to fruition.  We want leaders that are focused and manage for results.  We want something to get done.  We don’t want to see our leaders take their eyes off the ball – especially as they’re the ones that told us how important the ball was!

Authenticity

Authenticity is a tough trait to explain but at the heart of it all is the honesty, believability and empathy of the leader.  Although our leaders can be many miles away – in different countries even – we need to feel some form of connection to them.  We want to believe that we have a personal relationship with the leader.  We want to know that the leader is who they say they are, and we want to believe they have empathy for our situation.  We want to know that they have the ability to put themselves in our shoes and see and feel what we see and feel.  We want them to be the person they are – not moulded to the person we want them to be.

Passion

Ever been moved by a boring presentation, a boring speech or a boring meeting?  Thought not.  We all need passion in our lives.  We do things because we feel passionate about them and it’s the same with leaders.  We want our leaders to care, to show passion, to show emotion rather than delivering some dry corporate drivel.  Passion attracts us to leaders just as it attracts us to other people.  We can forgive many things if we see that underneath it all there is a passion for the journey.  Bland leaders will never make it big.  Passion tells us that the focus and mission is important – to all of us.  Passion shows emotional commitment – and that means a great deal.

Conclusions

Think about these five traits, not just for leaders of big businesses but for yourself as well.  In leading your part of the business make sure that you do all you can to lead with clarity, consistency, commitment, authenticity, and passion!

*Oh, and in case you weren’t sure, SWAG is a scientific wide-ar*ed guess!

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