Knowledge Center: Publication
Chief Executive Officer & Board of Directors
Leadership Qualities that Matter the Most2/6/2014 Jeffrey S. Sanders
We all know the story by now. The world is more complex, global, latticed, networked and unforgiving. What’s the implication for leadership? What qualities are needed to succeed in this more demanding world?
Our work with leaders and organizations throughout the world has enabled us to identify a small handful of must-have qualities: empathy, business judgment, self-awareness, adaptability, integrity, passion, and courage. Based on our experience, a leader with these core attributes has a remarkably higher probability of success, regardless of what context they are thrown into.
In today’s world we are all swimming – perhaps drowning – in information, data and ideas. The ability to quickly and efficiently cut through this clutter, separate the wheat from the chaff and zero in on what’s most important is at the heart of possessing business judgment. Armed with judgment, leaders can make sense of the most salient issues and go on to ask insightful follow up questions. When it comes time to make an important decision, they clearly anticipate the unintended consequences of their decisions on everyone involved. Judgment allows a leader to see the whole chess board, often several moves in advance. After sifting through the data, great leaders then put the pieces together in a cohesive, integrated way. Judgment is also about making tough trade-offs and prioritizing. As such, judgment is the underlying quality that allows a leader to be a proficient strategic thinker. Without good judgment a leader will see the world in a more narrow, disconnected way, making ad-hoc, reactive decisions along the way.
Connecting with a multitude of diverse, demanding, and sometimes unpredictable constituencies is an inescapable reality of today’s world. In a networked environment relationship management can hold the key to unlocking value in an infinite variety of ways – with customers, colleagues, subordinates, strategic partners, unions, activist investors and corporate board members. Possessing the ability to really put yourself in the shoes of another individual and understand where they’re coming from, how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, what their underlying agenda is and motivations are, all of these are key leadership requirements. There are two sides to empathy. One is cognitive empathy, the ability to understand what another individual is thinking. Second is emotional empathy, the ability to understand how another person is feeling. Empathy shouldn’t be confused with its first cousin, compassion. A compassionate leader can help set the right cultural tone in an organization. But too much compassion can actually be counterproductive for a leader, particularly when tough interpersonal decisions need to made that will inevitably create tension.
If empathy is the outward looking part, there’s also an internally focused component. This comes in the form of a high degree of self-awareness: the ability to really understand and get in touch with how you think and feel, and what motivates you as a leader, and as an individual. A deep level of self-awareness is the prerequisite of any authentic leader. Paradoxically, the more disconnected and disrupted external environments become, the more essential it is to take a hard look inside, being absolutely clear about who you are, how you feel and how you lead. This provides wellbeing and security to the individual leader – who understands his or her “true north” – and to the many constituents with whom the leader will interact. No leader – or human being for that matter – is perfect. Acknowledging one’s shortcomings and weaknesses is the ultimate expression of humility and humanity, and helps strengthen interpersonal connections, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. In turbulent times, colleagues will crave connection and support. A self-aware, authentic leader can provide this comfort. There is an understandable danger in thinking of selfawareness as being inward focused and myopic. Ironically, self-awareness and authenticity fosters an openness to new perspectives, ways of thinking and points of view. This dovetails nicely into the next essential quality, adaptability.
One of the most common derailers of otherwise talented and successful executives is the fact that they’ve become set in their ways; they think they know everything and they’ve seen it all before. Essentially, this boils down to a lack of self-awareness, myopia and perhaps, even delusion about one’s own value to the organization. In the face of continuous change and relentless competition the capacity to adapt is thrown into stark relief. Organizations – and leaders – must be able and willing to change direction, if and when required. Leadership, at its best, is forward looking but fully aware of the lessons of past performance. One should appreciate history, but not be shackled by it. An effective leader knows there are situations, particularly when the external context has significantly changed, when it is necessary to adapt. Digging in one’s heels and “standing the ground” is a dangerous, often fatal flaw in these situations.
In business there are always shades of grey. Navigating this sometimes dangerous ambiguity is a constant priority in the C-suite, particularly in today’s world of constant distraction and temptation. There are few absolutes and no fool-proof way of calculating whether a newly appointed leader will act with complete integrity. Will the leader choose the right path when temptation beckons? To gauge new leaders ask: “Can they understand how their actions and what they say (or even imply) could potentially impact others, inside and outside the organization?” Decisions made by leaders frequently have unintended consequences and leaders must constantly be aware of them. A CEO’s actions have a massive trickle-down effect on the entire culture of the organization. Acting appropriately sets the ground rules and accepted norms and behaviours. Remove integrity and the whole house of cards will eventually come tumbling down no matter how smart, empathetic and emotionally aware a leader may be. In that sense, it is the most important of all six of the essential leadership qualities.
Passion and courage:
Leadership is not for the faint of heart. For all a leader’s abilities, there are always going to be times when things are tough, with people resisting at every turn. Passion and courage are essential if these obstacles are to be overcome. The best leaders surround themselves with senior executives willing to take a contrarian view, supported by compelling evidence. Yet leaders have to make tough choices (see judgment), and need courage to push forward in the direction they think makes the most sense. And even when the leader makes all the right moves, unexpected obstacles will inevitably emerge along the way. As the legendary heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson once said, “even the best strategy flies out the window when you step into the ring and get hit in the mouth.” Leaders take their fair share of punches too, and sometimes fall to the mat. It’s sheer passion and resilience that allows them to get back up and fight.
Our experience shows us that regardless of the context they find themselves in, leaders who develop and nurture these qualities have a higher probability of success.