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Five Most Important Leadership Traits

September 25, 2014
Borderless Leadership

by Mark Shead

Some sit and pontificate about whether leaders are made or born. The true leader ignores such arguments and instead concentrates on developing the leadership qualities necessary for success. In this article, we are going to discuss five leadership traits or leadership qualities that people look for in a leader. If you are able to increase your skill in displaying these five quality characteristics, you will make it easier for people to want to follow you. The less time you have to spend on getting others to follow you, the more time you have to spend refining exactly where you want to go and how to get there.

The five leadership traits/leadership qualities are:

1.    Honest
2.    Forward-Looking
3.    Competent
4.    Inspiring
5.    Intelligent

These five qualities come from Kouzes and Posner’s research into leadership that was done for the book The Leadership Challenge.

Your skill at exhibiting these five leadership qualities is strongly correlated with people’s desire to follow your lead. Exhibiting these traits will inspire confidence in your leadership. Not exhibiting these traits or exhibiting the opposite of these traits will decrease your leadership influence with those around you.

It is important to exhibit, model and display these traits. Simply possessing each trait is not enough; you have to display it in a way that people notice. People want to see that you actively demonstrate these leadership qualities and will not just assume that you have them. It isn’t enough to just be neutral. For example, just because you are not dishonest will not cause people to recognize that you are honest. Just avoiding displays of incompetence won’t inspire the same confidence as truly displaying competence.

The focus of each of these five traits needs to be on what people see you do–not just the things they don’t see you do. Being honest isn’t a matter of not lying–it is taking the extra effort to display honesty.

Honesty as a Leadership Quality
People want to follow an honest leader. Years ago, many employees started out by assuming that their leadership was honest simply because the authority of their position. With modern scandals, this is no longer true.

When you start a leadership position, you need to assume that people will think you are a little dishonest. In order to be seen as an honest individual, you will have to go out of your way to display honesty. People will not assume you are honest simply because you have never been caught lying.

One of the most frequent places where leaders miss an opportunity to display honesty is in handling mistakes. Much of a leader’s job is to try new things and refine the ideas that don’t work. However, many leaders want to avoid failure to the extent that they don’t admit when something did not work.

There was a medium size organization that was attempting to move to a less centralized structure. Instead of one location serving an entire city, they wanted to put smaller offices throughout the entire metro area. At the same time, they were planning an expansion for headquarters to accommodate more customers at the main site. The smaller remote offices was heralded as a way to reach more customers at a lower cost and cover more demographic areas.

After spending a considerable amount of money on a satellite location, it became clear that the cost structure would not support a separate smaller office. As the construction completed on the expanded headquarters building, the smaller office was closed. This was good decision making. The smaller offices seemed like a good idea, but when the advantages didn’t materialize (due to poor management or incorrect assumptions) it made sense to abandon the model. This was a chance for the leadership to display honesty with the employees, be candid about why things didn’t work out as expected, learn from the mistakes an move on.

Unfortunately in this situation the leadership told employees that they had planned on closing the satellite location all along and it was just a temporary measure until construction was completed on the larger headquarters building. While this wasn’t necessarily true, it didn’t quite cross over into the area of lying. Within a few months the situation was mostly forgotten and everyone moved on. Few of the employees felt that leadership was being dishonest. However, they had passed up a marvelous opportunity to display the trait of honesty in admitting a mistake.

Opportunities to display honesty on a large scale may not happen every day. As a leader, showing people that you are honest even when it means admitting to a mistake, displays a key trait that people are looking for in their leaders. By demonstrating honesty with yourself, with your organization and with outside organizations, you will increase your leadership influence. People will trust someone who actively displays honesty–not just as an honest individual, but as someone who is worth following.

Forward-Looking as a Leadership Trait
The whole point of leadership is figuring out where to go from where you are now. While you may know where you want to go, people won’t see that unless you actively communicate it with them. Remember, these traits aren’t just things you need to have, they are things you need to actively display to those around you.

When people do not consider their leader forward-looking, that leader is usually suffering from one of two possible problems:

1.    The leader doesn’t have a forward-looking vision.
2.    The leader is unwilling or scared to share the vision with others.

When a leader doesn’t have a vision for the future, it usually because they are spending so much time on today, that they haven’t really thought about tomorrow. On a very simplistic level this can be solved simply by setting aside some time for planning, strategizing and thinking about the future.

Many times when a leader has no time to think and plan for the future, it is because they are doing a poor job of leading in the present. They have created an organization and systems that rely too much on the leader for input at every stage.

Some leaders have a clear vision, but don’t wish to share it with others. Most of the time they are concerned that they will lose credibility if they share a vision of the future that doesn’t come about. This is a legitimate concern. However, people need to know that a leader has a strong vision for the future and a strong plan for going forward. Leaders run into trouble sharing their vision of the future when they start making promises to individuals. This goes back to the trait of honesty. If a leader tells someone that “next year I’m going to make you manager of your own division”, that may be a promise they can’t keep. The leader is probably basing this promotion on the organization meeting financial goals, but the individual will only hear the personal promise.

An organization I was working with was floundering. It seemed like everyone had a different idea about what they were trying to achieve. Each department head was headed in a different direction and there was very little synergy as small fiefdoms and internal politics took their toll.

Eventually a consulting firm was called in to help fix the problem. They analyzed the situation, talked to customers, talked to employees and set up a meeting with the CEO. They were going to ask him about his vision for the future. The employees were excited that finally there would be a report stating the direction for the organization.

After the meeting, the consultants came out shaking their heads. The employees asked how the important question had gone to which the consultants replied, “we asked him, but you aren’t going to like the answer”. The CEO had told the consultant that, while he had a vision and plan for the future, he wasn’t going to share it with anyone because he didn’t want there to be any disappointment if the goals were not reached.

Leaders can communicate their goals and vision for the future without making promises that they may not be able to keep. If a leader needs to make a promise to an individual, it should be tied to certain measurable objectives being met. The CEO in the example didn’t realize how much damage he was doing by not demonstrating the trait of being forward-looking by communicating his vision with the organization.

The CEO was forward-looking. He had a plan and a vision and he spent a lot of time thinking about where the organization was headed. However, his fear of communicating these things to the rest of the organization hampered his leadership potential.

Competency as a Leadership Quality
People want to follow someone who is competent. This doesn’t mean a leader needs to be the foremost expert on every area of the entire organization, but they need to be able to demonstrate competency.

For a leader to demonstrate that they are competent, it isn’t enough to just avoid displaying incompetency. Some people will assume you are competent because of your leadership position, but most will have to see demonstrations before deciding that you are competent.

When people under your leadership look at some action you have taken and think, “that just goes to show why he is the one in charge”, you are demonstrating competency. If these moments are infrequent, it is likely that some demonstrations of competency will help boost your leadership influence.

Like the other traits, it isn’t enough for a leader to be competent. They must demonstrate competency in a way that people notice. This can be a delicate balance. There is a danger of drawing too much attention to yourself in a way that makes the leader seem arrogant. Another potential danger is that of minimizing others contributions and appearing to take credit for the work of others.

As a leader, one of the safest ways to “toot you own horn without blowing it”, is to celebrate and bring attention to team achievements. In this way you indirectly point out your competency as a leader. For example: “Last year I set a goal of reaching $12 million in sales and, thanks to everyone’s hard word, as of today, we have reached $13.5 million.”

Inspiration as a Leadership Trait
People want to be inspired. In fact, there is a whole class of people who will follow an inspiring leader–even when the leader has no other qualities. If you have developed the other traits in this article, being inspiring is usually just a matter of communicating clearly and with passion. Being inspiring means telling people how your organization is going to change the world.

A great example of inspiration is when Steve Jobs stole the CEO from Pepsi by asking him, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?” Being inspiring means showing people the big picture and helping them see beyond a narrow focus and understand how their part fits into the big picture.

One technique to develop your ability to inspire is telling stories. Stories can be examples from your customers, fictitious examples from your customers, or even historical fables and myths. Stories can help you vividly illustrate what you are trying to communicate. Stories that communicate on an emotional level help communicate deeper than words and leave an imprint much stronger than anything you can achieve through a simple stating of the facts.

Learning to be inspiring is not easy–particularly for individuals lacking in charisma. It can be learned. Take note of people who inspire you and analyze the way they communicate. Look for ways to passionately express your vision. While there will always be room for improvement, a small investment in effort and awareness will give you a significant improvement in this leadership trait.

Intelligence as a Leadership Trait
Intelligence is something that can be difficult to develop. The road toward becoming more intelligent is difficult, long and can’t be completed without investing considerable time. Developing intelligence is a lifestyle choice. Your college graduation was the beginning of your education, not the end. In fact, much of what is taught in college functions merely as a foundational language for lifelong educational experiences.

To develop intelligence you need to commit to continual learning–both formally and informally. With modern advances in distance, education it is easy to take a class or two each year from well respected professors in the evening at your computer.

Informally, you can develop a great deal of intelligence in any field simply by investing a reasonable amount of time to reading on a daily basis. The fact is that most people won’t make a regular investment in their education. Spending 30 minutes of focused reading every day will give you 182 hours of study time each year.

For the most part, people will notice if you are intelligent by observing your behavior and attitude. Trying to display your intelligence is likely to be counterproductive. One of the greatest signs of someone who is truly intelligent is humility. The greater your education, the greater your understanding of how little we really understand.

You can demonstrate your intelligence by gently leading people toward understanding–even when you know the answer. Your focus needs to be on helping others learn–not demonstrating how smart you are. Arrogance will put you in a position where people are secretly hopeful that you’ll make a mistake and appear foolish.

As unintuitive as it may seem, one of the best ways to exhibit intelligence is by asking questions. Learning from the people you lead by asking intelligent thoughtful questions will do more to enhance your intelligence credibility than just about anything. Of course this means you need to be capable of asking intelligent questions.

Everyone considers themselves intelligent. If you ask them to explain parts of their area of expertise and spend the time to really understand (as demonstrated by asking questions), their opinion of your intelligence will go up. After all, you now know more about what makes them so intelligent, so you must be smart as well. Your ability to demonstrate respect for the intellect of others will probably do more to influence the perception of your intellect than your actual intelligence.

Source: Leadership 501

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