Updated: Jul 16
No matter the size or type of business, all successful businesses have one thing in common – great leaders! The question is: what separates a good leader from a great leader, especially in a time where the world has been turned upside down? We looked at what all the top leadership experts are saying about the traits of a great leader in such a volatile time as the Covid-19 Pandemic.
The recipe for powerful leaders seems very different across different industries, but common ingredients repeat themselves. Great leaders are not just another form of goodness - they stand in a class of their own. This means that if you have ever encountered such a leader in your life, you are unlikely to forget the experience.
Research published in the Harvard Business Review by Russell Reynolds Associates and Hogan Assessment Systems supports this view. After reviewing trends and profiles of over 700 CEO’s, they concluded that no two leaders are exactly alike, but they all share common traits.
Great leadership always seems to start from within and is not initially linked to a leadership role. Their core values drive their behaviour long before their title catches up with them. When people see that someone truly stands for something bigger than themselves, they almost organically gain followers and become leaders without asking for the position. As John Maxwell says: “Leadership is about influence. Nothing more, nothing less.” Beyond that, we also realise that great leaders are highly driven individuals who become intentional about the small actions that make up their day.
While there is no one secret source for great leadership, several common traits are shared amongst them and verbalized by the experts who study their behaviour. In this three-part series, we would like to share the 9 common traits and consequent habits most often exhibited by great leaders who are able to achieve success during tough times that look easy.
Each week we will review 3 of the 9 traits the most experts commonly considered to be the DNA of great leadership in difficult (and not so difficult) times, as shown below:
1. Empathy & Compassion
2. Candor & Transparent Communication
3. Adaptability and Agility
6. Learning Orientation
7. Embracing Diversity & Inclusion
8. Servant Leadership
9. Ruthless Prioritization
1. Empathy & Compassion
"Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives."
Empathy and compassion are two of the most important aspects of leadership and soft skills that must be hard-wired into all leaders. Without empathy and compassion, no leader will be able to inspire employees to follow their vision or elicit loyalty.
Fortunately and unfortunately, this is one of the traits that cannot be faked, and without it, no leader will be able to build a team effectively. Employees pick up on this very quickly, and rebuilding trust is very difficult to do. Empathy starts with respecting people for who they are and not seeing them as numbers on your spreadsheet showing your ascent to great profits.
Empathy is the ability to really understand someone else’s world by gaining insight into their perspective and emotions. It is commonly described as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The difficult part about true empathy and compassion is to understand how someone else is feeling in their specific set of circumstances, not how you would feel in a similar situation. That is why this trait is so scarce but so important, as employees feel that their leadership understands them in a personal way. The loyalty that compassionate leaders inspire in teams can appear almost supernatural. The other side of the coin is that there are huge costs associated with the lack of empathy, when employees who do not value this trait have little or no regard for showing compassion to their co-workers, or worse, their customers.
Some people are inherently better at practising the subtle art of empathy, but it is a trait that can be developed. If you know that you score low on the empathy scale, then just admitting the deficiency is a huge step in the right direction. Another key principle to understand is that our level of perceived empathy is directly affected by our own physical and mental state. If you are exhausted and stressed out, then your ability to show empathy will be negatively affected.
The capacity for empathy is an innate human trait that can be re-learned just like some of us have unlearnt it through bad corporate experiences. Empathy can be seen as a data-gathering tool that allows you to understand the human environment you are operating in. By analysing the data before taking action, you can be more tactical in your approach to others and be able to communicate more effectively and hopefully inspire some loyalty.
3 Ways to develop this trait:
Our ability to intentionally listen to what others are saying is a key attribute of empathetic leaders. This means that you must put your entire focus on the person you are engaging in conversation with so that they can see you are actively attentive. Try to spend more time listening than talking, when in conversation with a colleague/employee and see if you can identify the specific difficulties that they face.
Start paying attention to non-verbal cues that are present in almost all daily communication with others. Our ability to analyse body language is much more accurate than we think. Once you start paying attention to the way a message is delivered over and above what is being said, you will pick up on people’s state of mind more accurately.
When confronted with a comment or question from an employee, take a few seconds to try and understand the motivation and emotion behind the request before responding. These few seconds might start changing the way you respond over time.
2. Candor & Transparent Communication
"Lack of candor blocks smart ideas, fast action and good people contributing all the stuff they've got.
It's a killer."
If we are learning anything from the current crisis, then it is that the legacy of authoritarian leadership has no place in business anymore. The success of agile methodologies in uncertain environments has shown us that a collaborative and consultive leadership style is much more successful, and this requires transparent communication.
Being transparent as a leader can have powerful consequences, as it immediately impacts the trust that a leader inspires. People want to relate with their leaders and know that they exist in the same reality as those who work for them. The information/digital age has created a culture where people expect a higher level of transparency.
The need for transparent communication must also go both ways. It is crucial to collect and consider employees' ideas that make them feel involved in the company's future. Transparency thus promotes collaboration, and the entire company works together to develop solutions for customers, which shows why these companies thrive in difficult times. A culture of transparent communication does not stop there – it also permeates the organization and affects the way in which customers are managed. Customers who value transparent communication promote loyalty that is impossible to buy.
In order to achieve a higher level of transparency, a leader requires high levels of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). This allows a leader, on the one hand, to admit to employees that they do not have all the answers whilst fostering a sense of collaboration that facilitates problem-solving that would not have been possible in an authoritative environment. When you come across a work environment where employees express themselves freely without fear of judgement whilst being respectful to others, you can count on the presence of a transparent leader with high EQ.
There are some clear practical benefits for an organization when a leader practises and promotes transparent communication and candor:
Teamwork is improved, and teams are stronger as a result- transparency is a powerful unifier when people are asked to solve a problem together.
Problems are solved much faster – employees get to know each other and can work together faster as time goes on.
It promotes authentic relationships between employees, as people can see each other for who they really are. Miscommunication and unnecessary conflict is also avoided as a result.
Trust in leadership increases.
Efficiency levels improve as a direct result of the combination of positive changes achieved as shown above.
Ways to develop this trait:
People believe more in the message when it is delivered personally than in writing. When communicating crucial messages to your organization, use “face-to-face” delivery mechanisms like personal presentation or video rather than email. Employees will be able to gauge the emotion behind the message and not just the information.
Focus on the development of characteristics that improve your Emotional Intelligence:
Manage your negative emotions
Know and manage your stressors
Practise empathy – as discussed in the first section of this blog.
"A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd."
This idea seems to conflict with the general view of charismatic leaders that we envision, but the concept of humility must not be confused with the lack of confidence. Great leaders can be both strong and humble. As Chester Huber, senior lecturer at Harvard Business, so eloquently put it: “Great leaders have the ability to act decisively and with confidence to inspire their team while simultaneously displaying a humility that respects and encourages their team’s best efforts."
The best leaders in the world know that they cannot possibly know or do everything themselves. They have the self-awareness and confidence to recognize the value in others without feeling threatened. They build teams around them that complement their skill set and enhances their ability to deliver value to employees and customers. These leaders will also not take credit for success on their own. They understand that success comes from making the best ideas work, even if those ideas did not come from them.
One of the most important reasons why humility is so important is that it prevents a leader’s pride from getting in the way of gathering the necessary information to achieve great results.
Humility is, unfortunately, one of the rarest attributes, as it requires the containment of one’s ego.
Ways to develop this trait:
Put others first. Your people will either make you or break you, so make sure you understand and meet their needs. Listening, encouraging, coaching and rewarding people are some of the ways this can be done.
Put your focus on the bigger vision and the collective effort required to achieve this dream. Once you realize that no man is an island, then only will you appreciate the efforts of others and be humbled by the resulting achievements.
Please keep a lookout for our next blog where we will review the next 3 traits!