Identifying the essential qualities of leaders
When thinking about leadership we often consider aspects that make someone an effective leader. It is the skills and qualities leaders possess that make up these aspects. This article discusses the essential qualities of leadership from a number of perspectives. It also discusses what we mean by bad leadership.
Definition of qualities
The dictionary defines qualities as
“A particular characteristic (of a person or thing). Quality is a characteristic, innate or acquired, that, in some particular, determines the nature and behavior of a person or thing: naturalness as a quality”
So quality is about the nature of the person. In contrast, the definition of skill is
“An ability and capacity acquired through deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to smoothly and adaptively carryout complex activities or job functions involving ideas (cognitive skills), things (technical skills), and/or people (interpersonal skills).”
Put simply a quality is about the nature of a person and skill is about the ability or capability of someone.
Good and bad leadership
In this article, I am exploring the essential qualities of leaders both good and bad. As we all know there are some leaders who act for the greater good of others, the team or society as a whole. Conversely, there are leaders who acquire a following where the objectives are for division, fear or competition and at the extreme can be downright evil.
Whenever I run seminars and ask people about memorable or great leaders, invariably someone mentions Adolph Hitler. Typically this provokes an argument with attendees about whether the ability to lead people to great evil is still a sign of effective leadership. There are many world leaders who have led their people to despicable outcomes and Hitler is just one of many. My opinion on this is that effective leadership does not result in harm or destruction or entropy. Therefore there may be people who have acquired a position of leadership, but their evil intent or the by-product of their success, is for people to suffer negates their real claim to leadership. Rather they manipulate to achieve their warped results. Manipulation of the masses is not a leadership skill.
In business, while bad leaders may not commit evil acts or imprison whole nations, when the ego is fully operating then the workforce suffers. There are many organisations where employees are stifled, insufficiently rewarded and lack true purpose.
Essential qualities of good leaders
No matter what kind of leader there are some universal characteristics which leaders who are for the good possess. Leaders at all levels possess these essential qualities.
One of the essential qualities for leaders is the ability to overcome a fixed mindset. Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
“students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset)”
Dweck illustrates a different approach to encouraging students as illustrated in a piece from STEM.org. Clearly, these approaches apply to encourage leaders, but also how leaders encourage their followers. The illustration to the side is an adaption of Dweck’s student illustration which looks at different ways a growth and fixed mindset would look at difficult problem-solving.
There are many aspects of themselves leaders can become aware of. Self-awareness is critical to fostering a growth mindset. Understanding themselves gives leaders a bottom line whereby they can extract any limiting factors and opt to grow. The Wright State University states set out these 5 aspects we as humans have the ability to become aware of in ourselves. The commentary is mine.
- Personality – Introverted/Extroverted, Thinking or Feeling, for example, are dichotomies of MBTI, Myers Briggs Type Indicators. Knowing these preferences can help to understand the self. There are many other personality tools which can promote understanding.
- Values – Understanding what is important in our lives is essential to raise awareness of self. There are many methodologies to unpicking these values.
- Habits- We develop helpful and unhelpful habits and some we are totally unaware of. Insights into our habits can help us promote the positives and eliminate not so positives.
- Needs – Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs demonstrates levels of needs as humans. Our growth will be determined by where we are on the hierarchy.
- Emotions – Emotional intelligence is key to becoming self-aware. Contrary to popular beliefs about emotional intelligence, I believe emotions are a guidance system which tells us vital information which will help build the essential qualities we need to become good leaders.
- Thinking patterns is one I have added. We can change long-held thinking patterns. Changing the way we think can promote self-awareness, as well as change our perceptions for good.
Positive attitude and Wellbeing
The benefits of positive psychology and a focus on wellbeing have become mainstream in leadership development. Martin Seligman developed a model with five core elements of psychological wellbeing called PERMA. It was one of the most comprehensive wellbeing tools. The elements of PERMA are:
- Positive emotions – Feeling good, connecting to happiness within. Adopting an optimistic outlook
- Engagement – Finding a flow, a connection with some activity or past time or task that immerses us in something we enjoy and lose ourselves in.
- Relationships – Developing authentic connections. Having levels of relationships with others which include connection, love, intimacy and strong social, emotional and physical connections.
- Meaning – Having a purposeful existence. Being involved in something that captures our hearts and minds, feeling connected and that we are making a meaningful difference.
- Accomplishments – Getting results, achieving a state of being, or manifesting something important to you or those you love. Having a sense of pride and feeling fulfilled.
Leaders rarely focus on the past. They are usually fully present in the moment, but take time out to think ahead. Because of this, leaders have an innate ability to be fully engaged and committed to what’s going on right in front of them. Those leaders are also mindful of how they might need to prepare for what’s coming over the horizon. One of the essential qualities of leadership is forward thinking There are 3 main elements in the way leaders are forward-thinking.
- Strategic – They plan and have tactics to manifest the outcomes and impacts they want. So they are thinking of what might come in the future.
- Horizon Scanning – They look at what is coming from a number of directions, commonly using the PESTLE model or some other framework to gather information.
- Mitigating Risk – They anticipate the problems that may come up and develop mitigations to counter those problems.
Essential qualities of inspirational leaders
What defines inspirational leaders is the extent to which they are influenced and act from their higher self, or spirit. They not only are in touch with their higher self, but they also help others to be in touch with their higher self and so they are inspiring.
Inspirational leaders possess essential qualities which are specific to their own way of leading. Not everyone relates to inspirational leadership. Some people much prefer more practical, logical and factual leadership.
I remember a discussion I had with a close colleague who was a sensor/thinker, which means she gathered information via her senses and the world around her. I asked her if she would prefer to be remembered as a respected leader or an inspirational leader. Her response was to be respected.
For some people, the imagination, and beliefs of inspired people are not something they relate to. In my experience, while inspirational leadership resonates with most, not everyone starts off with the personality or operational make-up to be an inspiring leader. That’s not, of course, to say they won’t be respected, and indeed in some vocations and situations, a pragmatic, sensory leader works best. However, anyone can grow and learn to become anything they want. Sometimes inspirational leaders have to learn to be pragmatic and visa versa. Here are some of the most common essential qualities of inspirational leaders
Inspirational leaders are visionary. In this context being visionary means they have the ability to create a new future in their imagination. Some of the most life-changing inventions have been as a result of visionary people persevering beyond the possible to achieve the impossible. Think of Edison, Stephenson and latterly Steve Jobs.
Leaders who inspire understand they can manifest their vision. Theirs is not some pipe dream that they really believe can’t be achieved. Walt Disney knew he could make his dream come true and he went about creating it with trust and faith. There is a skill to making the unseen manifest and these leaders understand that.
Collective consciousness – Universal wisdom
Inspiring leaders are in touch with and guided by their higher self. They draw on their inner guidance to help them make decisions. That inner guidance always comes from a place of love and win/win. People who have committed an atrocious act might say “God told me to do it”. This is the ego talking not the higher self. Inspirational leaders know the difference.
Leaders who inspire know at the core of their being we are all connected. They don’t peddle division or inequality because they know we really were all created equal. Whatever our life circumstances or choices at the core we are made of the same stuff. We simply may look different, have different experiences and have acquired different beliefs and personalities.
In the workplace, the understanding we are all equally as valuable sweeps past status and hierarchies. Inspirational leaders know this and as such treat everyone with respect and consideration.
For inspirational leaders, the self just doesn’t come into the equation. What they set out to achieve will contribute to or affect the world at large for the greater good. Theirs is not a world of profit or fame but of love and expansion or humanity. This sounds very lofty but these principles are equally valid in a small business or in the world stage.
Essential qualities effective leaders possess
Effective leaders get things done and so they get results and do what they say they are going to do. They leave no stone unturned in meeting deadlines and work at pace. To maintain the momentum they will overcome obstacles and problems swiftly and emphatically.
Leaders who are effective are more concerned with the here and now. They are pragmatic and based in the sensory world. Unlike inspirational leaders, they are not usually visionary or about trying to change the world. They are more concerned with getting things done and achieving results.
Here are some of the essential qualities effective leaders possess.
Data and facts
These leaders like basing their rationale and decision making on historical and current data. They concentrate on the facts and evidence to inform their views. These are very pragmatic type leaders who resonate heavily with people who are sensors and feel comfortable with facts and data. They will always want to provide data to leverage or influence outcomes.
Focus on results
Results are vital for these leaders, as they determine the success or not on “getting the job done”. They may appear driven to get to the end game and to finish what they started. Before they set out on their journey, they will anticipate what the results might be. This is so they can make sure they are taking the right actions to achieve their outcomes.
Measure and evaluate progress
One of the essential qualities of these practical and effective leaders is their need to constantly measure progress and evaluate where they are. They are more than happy to work in an agile way so that while they may have some key outcomes, they will change course where the current evidence is showing they ought to.
Time is of the essence for these leaders and they do not waste any time wallowing in blame or investigations into what went wrong. These leaders will get over the issue and very quickly, almost seamlessly get into solution mode. They will review the information that caused the problem, but only to the extent, it will help them to find a solution.
These leaders like to make sure their people have recognition for their achievements. Therefore they like to celebrate success whether that be recognition by an industry award, an article setting out the difference they are making, or simply a team or organisation recognition.
Traits of bad leaders
Adolf Hitler is, of course, the epitome of bad leadership. Not that he wasn’t able to secure followers, but because he manipulated them into a certain way of perceiving others which fed into his followers greatest fears. There are of course bad leaders both in business and across the world stage. There is saying that a small show of anger in the microcosm, is equal to full-blown hateful rage on the macrocosm.
The following are some common qualities of poor and evil leaders, however, they are all intrinsically linked. The level to which these qualities are on display creates an equally negative impact for people involved. A negative impact is felt to the extent to which these qualities are on display.
On the world stage there of course have been many dictators. These leaders abuse their power using manipulation and propaganda to imprison their people physically and psychologically. In the business world, bad leaders create mini dictatorships where they operate from a strict command and control regime. These leaders stifle innovation and employee engagement. They do not allow employees to have a say in the decisions which affect them.
When the ego is in sole charge of a leader then the essential qualities these leaders display can be a slew of bad behaviours. When bullying, blame and a lack of diversity are in evidence then the leader is usually leading from ego. A leader who has a superiority complex, driven by a fierce need of the ego is in charge, then dehumanising people becomes the norm.
On a macro level, history has shown some leaders who are punishing, revengeful, enraged or even murderous. These leaders are downright evil, they act In opposition to life and growth. They create suffering and acute human misery.
Essential Qualities followers want from a leader
There are millions of leadership books which describe the essential qualities of leadership. It what about followers or employees want from leaders?
“Rather than trying to forever get more out of their people, companies are far better served by systematically investing in the meeting as many of their employees’ core needs as possible”
This research from Harvard Business School contends employees have four basic needs:
- renewal (physical);
- value (emotional),
- focus (mental) and
- purpose (spiritual)
when these four basic needs are met then productivity and engagement both improved at varying degrees.
Some years ago I was teaching some MBA students about global leadership exploring the challenges they faced. These included climate change, automation, global talent and demographics for example. When I asked the students about the essential qualities leaders would need to overcome these challenges they did not talk about pragmatic results although these will have factored. What they described fell into 3 categories.
This included value-based characteristics like integrity, honesty, openness and emotional intelligence. The students were clearly concerned about the essential qualities of values they wanted to see in a leader. The leader had to be open, honest and transparent, and worthy of leadership to win hearts and minds.
These students wanted leaders to be inclusive, engage with people and involve people in decision making. They were not interested in results or profits to the extent that was the sum total of results. They realised the wicked problems leaders have to grapple with needed more than the leader, but a concerted effort of everyone being a leader, and a true leader facilitating that.
The intent of the leader was of paramount importance. They wanted these leaders to have purpose and meaning and a mission which was for the greater good. Self-interest, division, competition and “them and us” attitude was not the space they wanted our leaders to be in.
Ways to identify essential leadership qualities
As a leader, it’s really good to understand those essential qualities you are bringing to the table. There is always the old argument about whether leaders are born or nurtured. The truth is that when it comes to essential qualities, there are natural leaders who seem to have mastered what it takes to lead other and there are leaders who willingly learn what it takes to lead others.
To help you understand those qualities you are good at and those which need more attention there are many methods or tools you can use to develop that self-awareness. Here is a small sample which will get you started.
A great tool is, of course, 360 feedback. This enables you to receive feedback from a number of sources. I undertook a 360 feedback exercise at a time when I managed a medium sized team with many stakeholders. I had to score myself against a number of indicators. A coach then analysed my responses against the stakeholder responses. I was way off the mark because I was far more modest in my own assessment than that of the respondents. There were many areas to address and grow, but it was a really valuable exercise because I decided on the back of the feedback to undertake a career change.
There are many tools on the market to help you develop self-awareness. One of my most valued is MBTI, Myers Briggs Type Indicator. Currently, it is being discredited by many even though it is statistically valid. MBTI is a really good tool to separate our operating model so we can understand it. So how we take in information, how we process that information and how we like to live our lives. I have to say when I used the tool to develop self-awareness, it highlighted the essential qualities I possessed and more importantly, it helped me understand why I had those qualities.
The VAK NLP model helps to understand your preferred way of communicating. Based on three modalities, visionary, auditory and kinesthetic. When you are able to communicate in all three modes, you can build rapport and connection with others easily. It also explains why you connect with some people more easily than others.