What are the characteristics of a great leader? Let’s explores this question and provides advice for putting those characteristics into action.

“What is leadership?”

In spite of 72 million Google search results, 170,000 books available on Amazon and the $2.6B leadership development industry, there is a startling lack of consensus on what, exactly, constitutes leadership.

It takes action to effectively move a project from idea to completion. Great organizations, whether a global company serving millions of people or mid-sized business and IT consulting firm, demonstrate leadership by showing their team members what great performance looks like: doing a good job consistently, task-by-task, with passion, excellence, and consistency.

There are probably countless ways to think about leadership, but I think of leadership as a combination of two core components – ethics and effectiveness.

Leadership Ethics

Ethical leaders can be described as fair, honest, and caring. They are transparent and engage in open communication, establishing a culture that expects and rewards the ethical conduct of team members. Such leaders make principled and fair choices, and structure work environments accordingly.

A leader’s behavior is the most significant driver of their perceived ethics. Each of us has a set of values and beliefs that influence our behavior, and, therefore, our ethical “comfort level.” Fortunately, each of us has the ability to choose our behavior – to take the shortcut or do the work, to bend the truth or stand under the weight of it. Each and every day, we make choices that either raise or lower our ethical standards. Here at Centric, we’ve defined six core values that serve as the foundation for the ethics and character of our company.

Consider for a moment a car company that became the worldwide leader in per-unit automobile deliveries in the first half of 2015 – three years ahead of schedule. An impressive feat, and one that certainly could not have been accomplished without effective leadership. But, how does your assessment of this accomplishment change if I told you that the car company was Volkswagen?

History is replete with examples of effective leadership that failed the test of ethical leadership.

Leadership Effectiveness

Defining what makes a leader effective is more ethereal – the component that drives the bulk of the books, Google search results and leadership development offerings available in the market: “The top five traits of effective leaders,” “The top ten things every successful leader must do,”,“The seven mistakes every leader should avoid” – honestly, the amount of available information is simply overwhelming.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working for a number of individuals that were very effective leaders, and for some individuals that were, shall we say, not so much. When I think back on those experiences and consider what made the effective leaders so great, it really boils down to the fact that they were exceedingly effective in the following four areas:

Define a clear vision:

I’m motivated by leaders that can clearly define and articulate their vision. Effective leaders understand that this is not a one-time event, but a consistent theme that must be applied to an ever-changing environment. As new information is made available, as challenges are encountered, as risks are identified, as circumstances change, an effective leader consistently refines and communicates the overall vision. How day-to-day work is performed by every team member contributes to the realization of that vision.

Plan to get there:

Typically, planning is thought to be more of a management activity, but the most effective leaders that I’ve worked for were exceptional planners. Not only could they comprehensively understand how strategic themes or major work components needed to be organized, but more importantly, they had the ability to apply their knowledge and expertise to understand where challenges were likely to be encountered and what risk areas needed to be monitored to limit their impact on the pursuit of the vision.

Include the team:

I have a vested interest in pursuing a goal or objective that I help to define. Effective leaders collaborate with team members whenever feasible. By participating in the process, team members have a higher sense of satisfaction and a feeling of inclusion and ownership.

Love what you do:

Passion may be difficult to define, but I sure know what it is when I see it. The most effective leaders I’ve worked for truly enjoyed their work, and just as importantly, enjoyed doing it with the people on their team. Passion is the fuel that powers ordinary individuals to achieve great things.

Make it Actionable

So, what should you do with all of this information? Here’s a simple exercise that I’ve used for years to continuously improve my leadership skills. When faced with a challenging or difficult situation, ask yourself this simple question, “What would a great leader do?”

Asking this question will liberate you from the limits and circumstances of your specific situation. It allows you to look beyond the immediate by freeing you from how you’re feeling at that particular moment. This question allows you to tune out the noise that accompanies any stressful situation and re-center on your character / ethics / core beliefs; in essence, to rise above the emotion of the moment.

Consider this example: You’re in a meeting with a client and you begin to suspect that their expectations for the project are materially different than the scope that was agreed to at the beginning of the engagement. By asking yourself, “What would a great leader do?” you might realize that a great leader would schedule a meeting with the client to better understand their expectations and discuss how they align with the previously-defined scope. However, if by nature you are the type of person that avoids conflict, you may choose to simply monitor the situation for the time being. But by asking this simple question, you’ve identified an opportunity to develop professional skills (conflict management) that align with the core values of the organization (integrity and openness), ultimately improving your abilities as a leader.

Finally, this simple question inspires us to reach beyond the limits of our personality and style. It challenges us to move out of our comfort zone, develop new skills and participate in the continuous learning that is required for perpetual growth – in other words, “Doing” Leadership.


References and Supporting Materials

Dr. Travis Bradberry LinkedIn Post – The value of integrity

Harvard Business Review Article – Measuring the Return on Character

Harvard Business Review Article – Respect as most effective leadership behavior

McKinsey Study – Decoding Leadership

Training Industry Article – How Big is the Training Market?

John Maxwell – Twenty-on Indispensable Qualities of a Leader

BloombergBusiness – Volkswagen Sales