Top 10 essential attributes of great leaders (a work-in-progress)
Let’s kick this off with a straight-up reversal: what do you think are the 10 most defining leaderships traits? I’ll be very surprised (disappointed in fact) if you don’t have some strong views already, so if you’ve got a minute to spare, jot down your Top 10 before reading further. Don’t be lazy. Hint: laziness is not in the Top 10.
What follows is my list of essential leadership attributes. There’s no shortage of wisdom out there on the interwebs – some of it expert, some conventional, most click-bait crap. There is no Universal List, and I personally believe that it’s incumbent on every leader to develop their own. And this is mine (well, the latest iteration of it in any event).
Your Top 10 should be based on objective and subjective experience, on extensive reading and research, on shared learnings and conversations, and on your own personally-held principles and values. It is a living, breathing, changing thing, and something that every leader should develop and constantly revisit for themselves. Not only as something against which to hold themselves accountable but also to guide them in identifying and developing others.
When I think of leaders that I respect, be they icons from history or public figures, or my own bosses, colleagues, peers and team members over the years, there are traits that consistently stand out. This my attempt to codify them…in no particular order.
The ability to think laterally and expansively, and to look beyond accepted constraints and the status quo to craft new, left-field and sometimes whacky solutions to difficult problems. This is non-negotiable. Leaders need to deal with a relentless barrage of new and complex questions, most of which don’t come pre-packaged with defined answers. Every single one of us has limitless creative potential. Great leaders know how to tap into their creative thinking, and how to harness the potential of others.
A Trojan work ethic
This one might not be popular, but let’s not avoid it. Long hours and back-breaking work have unfortunately become somewhat synonymous with toxic work cultures and bad habits in recent years. Yet when I think of great leaders – in any context, and at any time – a hardcore work ethic is ubiquitous. They work late, they work weekends, they put their bodies, minds and souls into what they do. This doesn’t happen all of a sudden when they are appointed to leadership; they are leaders because of it. Good leaders must, however, learn how to manage their ethic: it requires sacrifice, and it can certainly be destructive, but it is very much a part of them.
Being passionate about what one does certainly helps, and some are driven by this. Others are driven by insecurity, fear, ambition or the need to support a family. The purer the driver, the more likely the leader will be able to manage the additional stress and demands they place on themselves. Great leaders are driven by something: extrinsically, intrinsically, often both.
A disproportionate percentage of CEO’s are supposedly psychopaths, or so they say. I imagine that the ability to act without emotion or concern for others will make tough decisions involving people much easier. This arguably makes these leaders effective, but I don’t personally believe it makes them great. I believe that great leaders listen to others, take the time to appreciate perspectives, views and beliefs other than their own, and don’t put their own interests first. This allows them to better understand the needs, desires and fears of others, to incorporate these into planning and decision-making, and to build teams that are empowered and aligned, and products and services that customers love. Empathetic leaders will be supported by loyal and loving people during the hard times; self-serving assholes will swiftly be abandoned.
A genuine love for people
This is different to empathy, although certainly related. You don’t need to love people to want to understand them, but you do need to love people to manage and lead them. Leadership is hard – let’s not sugar-coat it. People can be a pain in the ass. You will have days where everything goes wrong, where you are Public Enemy No. 1, where you find yourself the inadvertent referee in a departmental-wide Royal Rumble, where all the news to deliver is bad and you are not only the messenger but also the source (or even the cause). Because you love working with people – and you love the people you work with – you can get through these days without losing yourself.
If you would prefer to spend the majority of your time in front of a screen, building widgets or “doing work”, then you need to ask yourself if leadership is something you really want in your life. Because when it comes to leadership, people are the work. When you’re wading through drama, remember that this is not a distraction from your job, this is your job. As a leader, you succeed or fail because of your people not in spite of them. And great leaders are swift to attribute success to their people, and take personal responsibility when they drop the ball.
Arrogance is an awful attribute. A leader may objectively be more experienced, technically proficient, informed and even smarter than someone else, but that in no way makes them intrinsically better. They are also acutely aware of their blind spots, biases and shortcomings and look to others for support. They know that their thinking and decisions are almost always enhanced by those of others, and so they actively seek out assistance and contrary views. One might say that good leaders fall on the right side of the Dunning Kruger equation: they don’t overestimate themselves or their abilities. The minute you think you know it all, you’re in trouble.
A strong customer-service orientation
I always look for experience in hospitality or a service industry when interviewing potential team members. Solid experience as a waiter, bartender or store salesperson is golden, and it sparkles brightly throughout a career. The customer may not always be right, but the habit of treating them promptly, properly and respectfully is sadly a rarity these days (IMHO). Even rarer is the willingness to go the extra mile for someone, and – rarer yet, the most “holy-of-holies’ – is the ability to turn a disgruntled consumer into a raving fan. An obsession with hospitality and customer-service excellence is absolutely invaluable. And it applies internally just as much as it does externally. Treat other leaders, teams and stakeholders within your company no differently to how you treat your toughest customers and you will go far. Guaranteed.
Optimism and resilience
Great leaders are “glass-half-full” people. In contemporary jargon, you can say that they possess a growth mindset. They believe in a bright tomorrow, that things will go their way and that every problem can be solved. This doesn’t mean that they’re delusional. Far from it. Optimists have shitty days too. They are human after all. But they don’t let speedbumps derail them. Crucially, they don’t view mistakes as failures; they see them as opportunities to learn and grow. And they apply this to their people as much as they do to themselves.
When you pair optimism with resilience, the result is an unstoppable force. A belief that all will be well in the end, combined with a dogged determination to just “keep showing up”, will by definition result in a remarkable success rate (or, at worst, an impressively low rate of failure). Winston Churchill, one of my entirely un-original leadership heroes, supposedly said that “success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm”. Whether or not he actually said it, I have nevertheless found myself chanting it under my breath quite frequently in 2020 thus far.
Of course optimists get frustrated, scared and flustered, and they definitely doubt themselves from time to time, but they don’t let any of this stop them. They keep moving. Also, they keep “The Game Face”. Keep your meltdowns and your tears for private, and keep calm, clear and self-assured with your team. You can be honest about how you feel, but nothing breeds panic and anxiety like, well, panic and anxiety.
I’ve yet to encounter a great leader who is not also a voracious, lifelong learner. This generally isn’t something they choose; it’s something they just are. And whilst it certainly helps to have a bookshelf full of business books from which to draw incessant and infuriating pearls of wisdom, even more important is a broad, boundless, unquenchable thirst for knowledge across a wide range of things and a downright annoying desire to understand how things work.
Curiosity builds “T-shaped” people, who have deep expertise or specialisation in a particular field, but who also know a lot about a broad range of subjects. A “curious creative” (another unstoppable power combo) will have at her disposal an exponentially larger number of Crayolas than her less-curious creative counterpart. She’ll also know how to draw on oils, pastels and other media to craft a wider variety of outputs, and won’t be content to just consider the blank rectangle in front of her. To a curious creative, the whole world is a canvas.
Diversity, innovation, endless potential – without curiosity, none of these is truly possible. Neither, come to think of it, is empathy. Without a curiosity for the experiences and perspectives of others, how can you hope to come close to understanding them? Or at the very least, appreciating that you can’t?
Proactivity (and the Art of Delegation)
Great leaders don’t wait to be asked to do something, they just get on with it. You can spot them in your business. Look around the screen on your next Zoom call. You know who they are. They’re the ones who are always looking for ways to improve things, who aren’t content to sit and wait for someone else to fix obstacles that hinder their performance, who constantly surprise you with their initiative. They exhibit a “bias to action”; they’re prepared to “move fast and break things”. They get shit done. As a result, they tend to be very, very busy, as everyone wants a piece of them on their projects.
But great leaders can’t do everything themselves. They realise that their ability to deliver at scale relies on effective delegation. This is what ultimately separates excellent “doers” from exceptional leaders. Drawing on Items 1 to 8 above, great leaders set their minds on what they need to do, and inspire, motivate, cajole and hustle others to get it done. Creative and proactivity – yet another marriage made in heaven.
I’ll keep this final point short, although I could easily unpack it into 10 sub-items (so maybe I’m cheating a bit here). Be the consummate professional in all that you do. Communicate clearly, communicate often, communicate well. Check your grammar and spelling. Learn how to write and format a formal letter. Be courteous and polite. Do what you say when you’re going to do it. Get back to people. Be honest, fair, reasonable and reliable. Don’t shy away from tough conversations, but be constructive and measured when having them. Think of the most upstanding person you know, visualise them, and aspire to be them. Never forget that you’re a brand, and that your brand projects beyond you. Make sure people are singing your praises when you’re not in the room, not plotting your demise – or worse, expressing crushing indifference.
…and there it is. This is my list. Well, the latest iteration of it in any event. It was slightly different a few months ago, and it will be slightly different in a few months time. But I will continuously come back to it and refine it. I will read it prior to every interview I conduct, and every task and goal I set for myself. It means a lot to me because it reflects my personal journey and the sum of my experiences to date. I hope that you will find it helpful in some way.
If you were diligent enough to jot down your Top 10 at the start, how does it compare now that you’ve read mine? Slide into my DMs – I’d love to compare notes.
Now more than ever, we need strategic managers who can think creatively, solve complex problems, manage change and uncertainty, and build and inspire highly-productive, engaged teams. Red & Yellow has developed a SETA-accredited, fully-online 12-month National Certificate in Generic Management, specialising in Strategic Management to help you learn how to be the kind of manager the workplace needs.
Author: Andrew Allison is our very own Chief Commercial Officer at Red & Yellow. He has a particular passion for education, transformation and media/digital law. In addition to being our CCO, he currently serves as a non-executive director of the Advertising Regulatory Board, and as a Public Representative of the Press Council of South Africa. He also established and chaired the Regulatory Affairs Council of the IAB SA (Interactive Advertising Bureau) between 2013 and 2017.