There are many different definitions of leadership and all of them have merit. After many hours of discussion, Alex A. Pilkington and I have come up with our own five essential qualities of an effective leader.
An effective leader is able to think and plan for the future, is able to embrace change, willing to learn and grow, is able to understand and control their emotions, is accountable and courageous, and is able to understand, communicate with and motivate people.
This description is based on the Five Essential Qualities that we have determined to be the most essential for powerful leadership: the ability to lead and plan strategically, a commitment to embracing change; a high level of emotional intelligence; a commitment to servant leadership, and the ability to meaningfully connect with others. We will go through each one.
The ability to look ahead with foresight and perspective can make the difference between surviving and striving or failing miserably. Kodak is a clear example of this. Their leaders ignored the threat and opportunity of the digital world, and the consequences have left a shell of the former company. Below are some elements to consider when we reach some sort of crossroads that demand that we carefully evaluate our options.
Our purpose is at the heart of who we are. For companies, this means creating mission and vision statements. The trick here is to make sure that this translates down to the entire staff. Simon Sinek has an informative article explaining how to create an active and intentional mission statement. The key element is that the mission statement starts with “I believe…” This applies to us as people as well – taking the time to understand what our driving force is can be an invaluable exercise. Once we know that, the paths we want to take can become much clearer. Getting clear on what drives us to get up in the morning. Putting the customer or others first as part of the mission incorporates servant leadership as a key value. Kodak mistakenly made their product more important than the customer needs, which led to their downfall.
The more carefully we consider all aspects of the situation, being as aware as possible of potential blind spots, the more successfully we will navigate that fork in the road. Asking ourselves what will happen at different points in the future will help us imagine different outcomes. Paying attention to trends that pertain to our situation will also be helpful. What technological changes are on the horizon? What could change with or for the people around you? Asking as many questions as possible will help think through scenarios we might have missed.
After you’ve done your evaluation, it’s probably time to make decisions and take action. There are many quotes on the danger of delaying decisions. This one by George Canning is a favorite: “Indecision and delays are the parents of failure.” Waiting for the right time to make a decision often means that opportunities are lost. Hoping that things will change is the path to frustration. Being honest and clear about the actions that are best are worthless unless the changes needed are actually made.
Creativity and Enthusiasm
The attitude with which we look for solutions and toward the future makes all the difference. A positive attitude allows for more creativity, energy and openness to new ideas. Negative thinking leaves us feeling drained, closed and discouraged. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” Going in to a situation convinced we will succeed gives us a significantly better chance of coming out ahead of the situation. Doing what we need to do to keep up our energy also helps. We are all too aware that the consequences of handling difficult situations can bring on feelings of being draggy and lethargic, which makes us feel ineffective and powerless. This has a direct and negative effect on our ability to find that innovative answer we are looking for.
Being able to handle or even embrace change, learning and growing are crucial to being able to handle changing and challenging situations. Looking for ways to challenge the status quo and ways to improve both on a personal and corporate level has saved people and companies from stagnancy and an inability to adjust to shifting conditions.
To quote Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We all know the problems of getting “stuck in a rut.” We are unable to change directions, adapt, and accomplish much of anything when we are immobilized. This is particularly harmful for leaders we depend on. History is full of failed companies with leaders who failed to learn and change with the times. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” can be one of the most debilitating phrases ever spoken. John Maxwell’s “The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth” is a great primer to get you started.
Increased Level of Competence
People have more respect for leaders that are skilled not just at leadership but their job or craft as well. Paying attention to what you might need to develop within yourself is the first step in the road to personal development. Perhaps you need to improve your craft. Perhaps you need to improve your leadership skills. Perhaps you need to stay current with new technology or trends. Then it entails not only being open to new information, but actively seeking it out.
Reading is one of the easiest ways to keep learning. This article by the Huffington Post details the reading habits of some of the most successful people. “Successful people…believe that books are a gateway to learning and knowledge.” Warren Buffett used to read 600-1000 pages a day and says he still spends 80% of his time reading. It has certainly benefitted him!
Training and Videos
There is a world of podcasts and YouTube videos at our disposal these days, in addition to being able to “Google” anything. Information has never been easier to access. There are webinars and trainings at our fingertips. Decide what you’d like to learn and either free or paid-for answers are available with a library, bookstore or internet connection.
How do you decide what you want to learn? One of my favorite suggestions from John Maxwell is to devote 10 minutes a day to thinking. He even advocates having a thinking chair with a pen and paper nearby. This is also a good place to do that reading we suggested. We often go through the day so focused on our to do list or immediate gratification that we don’t take the time to reflect in a way that really serves us. Taking the time to stop and think about what we want, examine our goals or brainstorm solutions to problems is an incredibly useful and overlooked tool. Having a morning or bedtime routine is a useful way to make sure that we consistently build this into our day.
Take some time to fully understand what your values are. Much like boxers use the ropes to stay within the ring, values help us get clear about what we consider most important. There are some useful worksheets to help figure out what your top values are. This one by Brene’ Brown works well. Circle the ones that ring true for you. Then narrow them down to 5 or 10. Then down to 3 to 5. These become your guideposts that help you stay true to yourself when you need to make difficult decisions.
Tools for Encouraging Change
Be Willing to Take Risks
Change cannot happen without risking some form of failure. It’s how we respond to “failure” or mistakes that makes all the difference. Understanding that this is an opportunity for learning and growing, not a reason to beat up on ourselves or others, can lead to a deeper understanding of the issue and is simply the next step to finding the solution. Thomas Edison and his team made 1000 “mistakes” before they created a successful lightbulb. Looking at each of those 1000 attempts as just a way to get closer to the solution that worked enabled them to get to the end result. And even then, look at how the lightbulb continues to change over the years! Encouraging yourself and others to keep trying is the path to finding the solution.
Challenge the Status Quo
Innovation and improvements come out of taking the time and effort of looking at how you are doing things with fresh eyes. Creating an environment where people are encouraged to offer ideas and suggestions for alternate methods and processes can lead to transformations and enhancements that would have been missed otherwise. “This is the way we’ve always done it” is one of the most stifling approaches possible.
Getting fresh perspectives is one of the most useful tools for positive changes. Using surveys, suggestions boxes and assessments, both internal and external, can give you insights you would have missed otherwise. Brainstorming ideas with others, either advisors, clients/customers or staff can bring up possibilities rich with opportunities. Yes. It’s true that some of the feedback may be critical or at least less than flattering, but being able to take the input with openness is one of the best ways to fix issues you may or may not have even been aware of. Ignorance is not bliss when it’s having a negative impact.
High Level of Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
The phrase was first coined by Daniel Goleman in 1995 as the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.
Emotional intelligence gives people the ability to respond with more objectivity and less emotion. Our first responses are often based on instinct, not on thoughtfulness. We have all paid the price of reacting impulsively and regretting our actions later! Emotional awareness allows more space and thought between the situation and our response.
Our level of success and our ability to be happy both benefit from our more developed emotional awareness. As this Fast Company recap shows – “people with strong emotional intelligence are more likely to succeed than those with high IQs or relevant experience.” The only thing we can control in any situation is our thoughts. Using those thoughts with more intention can have a direct influence on our happiness. We can be glass half-empty or glass half-full – it’s up to us to choose.
Here are the 5 elements of emotional intelligence we have chosen to focus on.
1. Emotional Awareness
Emotional awareness means that we are thinking about what we are thinking about. We are not the voice in our head, but until we become conscious of that, we don’t have the ability to separate ourselves from our thoughts. We become products of our habitual thoughts whether they serve us or not. Once we become awake to the fact that we can control our thoughts, we have the opportunity to choose new and more beneficial ways of looking at things. We become liberated from ways of thinking that keep us stuck and open to new ways of responding and reacting that can significantly alter and improve our lives in multiple ways. Taking time out to reflect is critical for gaining more EQ. Journaling and self-reflection are excellent tools for gaining insight and creating thoughtful solutions.
2. Emotional control
Keeping our emotions in check under difficult circumstances allows us to react with greater poise and control. Defensiveness, fear, or being overly sensitive can get in the way of healthy and productive reactions. It becomes easier to misinterpret and misunderstand the situation or the other person, inhibiting healthy resolutions and the ability to learn and grow. Taking that critical step back before reacting can make the difference between an outcome that helps or damages the situation. A great tip for gaining control in a difficult situation is to take a few deep breaths before reacting. Deep breathing signals safety to your brain and can allow a calmer and more rational response to any situation.
3. Empathy and Sensitivity
Being empathetic allows us to truly listen to and understand what someone else is feeling. It’s one of the greatest gifts we can give or get. We are born with an innate and deep-seated need to feel connected – truly recognizing another person’s feelings without judgement, interrupting or comparing is one of the most effective ways of providing that connection. Being heard and acknowledged helps people feel valued and included.
4. Intrinsic Motivation
Having intrinsic motivation means that we operate out of our own initiative, finding internal rewards for lives. People with high levels of intrinsic motivation find personal satisfaction in their lives and are less dependent on external rewards. They empower themselves to take initiative, set goals, work on self-improvement and be more action-oriented. Good leaders look at what motivates their people and then set them up to find satisfaction in the areas that mean the most to them.
5. Constructive Connections
Making sure that your relationships are healthy and beneficial requires that we approach our associations with care and thought. Evaluating the quality of our inner circle for the overall effect they have on our lives is a very useful exercise. We often stay in unhealthy relationships more out of habit and indecision than benefit. Of course, if we have dysfunctional family members or co-workers, it’s harder to avoid contact with them. Overall, when emotionally intelligent people do their best to surround themselves with other emotionally intelligent people, it’s a win-win for both parties.
From our perspective, servant leadership covers a wide variety of components. While it has been widely known from a biblical perspective, Robert Greenleaf popularized it in the 1970’s as a modern leadership technique, defining servant leaders as those who put their people first, focusing on helping them develop and perform to the best of their ability. We created some criteria to cultivate deeper levels of servant leadership.
People perform better when encouraged. Focusing on ways to motivate and inspire others provides beneficial guidance to help them perform their best. Making that a key concern is one of the best ways to help and serve others. Putting their needs first means that you look for ways that make them feel valued and appreciated consistently and thoughtfully. When I have asked people to tell me who their favorite manager or boss was, inevitably it was the one who was most openly appreciative.
In this case, accountability is meant to go two ways. The leader holds him or herself accountable, which allows people to depend on them with greater confidence. Conversely, the leader does not back down from supportively holding other people accountable. Setting and maintaining clear standards for performance, attitudes and behavior are critical for healthy organizations and relationships. When those standards are not kept by either party, the environment and people suffer. As Brene Brown says, Clear is Kind. Avoiding difficult conversations does disservice to both parties.
Having a clear set of values and being honest are critical for creating trust and psychological safety. When people are worried about being betrayed and lied to, that threat can break down effectiveness, peace of mind and relationship. Doing what is right, not what is self-serving, is one of the greatest acts of servant leadership. Creating an atmosphere of openness and true cooperation is a true act of stewardship. Trust is a valuable commodity, only built over time by consistently living into one’s values of honesty and authenticity. John Maxwell puts it well: “You build trust with others each time you choose integrity over image, truth over convenience or honor over personal gain.”
The courage to be vulnerable is a key element of servant leadership. From Brene Brown: “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” Being brave means that we strive to do our best, even under difficult situations. Courage to say what needs to be said, to decide what needs to be decided, to do what needs to be done when it’s painful and difficult is where the true leader stands out from the imposters. True leaders get out of their comfort zones and take action even when they are afraid.
Authors of “The Leadership Challenge”, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, claim that “The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present.” The time and energy spent on creating good relationships is repaid in countless and meaningful ways. The most memorable and meaningful people in our lives are usually those who focused on us and our needs, making us feel valued and important.
Leadership is built largely on influence and influence is based largely on the quality of your relationships. Keith Ferrazzi in “Leading Without Authority” says it well: “It’s through these real, human connections that we build permission to lead our teams, achieve our goals, and elevate our teammates – and ourselves – in the process.” Paying thoughtful attention to others and investing the time to get to know, encourage, listen to and care about them is one of the clearest paths to success.
Here are some key elements to building those intentional connections.
Intentional Connection Building
Making sure to stay connected to the key people in your personal and business life has never been more important and challenging. COVID 19 has changed the face of how we maintain contact with others and requires even more commitment and attention. Setting up some sort of routine check-in, whether it’s in person, by phone, Zoom or some other virtual option or even texting gives the structure to make sure that you stay in relationship with others. This commitment can often take a backseat to our task list, projects or issues that demand our immediate attention.
Many of us listen with the intent to respond so we are not paying close enough attention to what the other person is saying. Stephen Covey advised us to listen with the intent to understand, not to reply. There are some helpful tricks that can increase your listening skills.
Beware of interrupting
We all know how frustrating it is to be interrupted. We feel cut short and minimized. Holding our tongue until the other person is clearly finished speaking is one of the simplest active listening tools we can implement. We have two ears and one mouth, so try to listen twice as much and let them finish their thoughts before adding your own.
Mirror and Label
While it can seem a bit artificial at times, repeating back in your own words what the other person has said can be a clear sign that you have been listening carefully. You can start by saying “what I heard you say is…” or “it seems like..” are handy phrases to use when you want to mirror back what the other person has said. Thinking about how to do that is also a good way to stop you from quickly adding your thoughts to the conversation before you’ve acknowledged the other person.
Oh how we love to have an opinion on things! Holding off and giving the viewpoint of the other person before jumping in is very helpful to building rapport and improving communication. Asking questions might clarify some assumptions you might have made. Being curious is a productive alternative to letting your preconceived notions inhibit your conversation and relationship.
Constructive Conflict Resolution
As leaders, we often find ourselves in the middle of arguments or personality conflicts that we have to manage. Even for people that are not actually in leadership roles, handling uncomfortable situations can be challenging. Hoping that a situation will resolve itself on its own rarely works – taking a proactive and positive approach to creating resolution will produce results much more quickly and purposefully. Here are some good techniques.
Approach the situation positively and as objectively as possible
We are often inclined to take sides and let our emotions get the best of us. Using your emotional intelligence and non-judgmental listening skills, try to understand the position of both parties. If you are one of the people involved in the conflict, do your best to minimize your emotional involvement and look at the situation from the other person’s perspective. Taking a win-win perspective can help create an outcome that will be more acceptable to both sides. Go in with the commitment to finding a solution.
Clarify the point of contention
Clearly defining what the disagreement is about might actually clear up some misconceptions. We often make assumptions that are not accurate. As Brene Brown recommends: ask, “What is the story I am telling myself?” You might be pleasantly surprised to find out the issue is less significant than you thought. Sometimes just saying what the problem is out loud can lead to greater understanding and possible resolution. If the issue is a personality conflict, perhaps it’s a matter of working around the differences in ways that minimize the areas of conflict or contact.
Create the space for openness, conversation and reconciliation
Either as a leader or as one of the people involved, starting with a commitment to ease the tension goes a long way to creating a more beneficial outcome. One of Abraham Lincoln’s greatest strengths as a leader was his ability to lead a very diverse cabinet, which he intentionally developed in order to have the widest-ranging conversations possible. It helped him think more creatively and beyond his own experience. Conflict handled correctly can often produce growth and generate new ideas.
There is a commonly quoted statistic that about 10% of the population are natural leaders. Of course, this does not address the quality of their leadership – just their comfort level with assuming a position of power. We are committed to helping everyone become the most effective and principled leader possible. We believe that we all have the ability to influence others, with or without a title, and that the path starts with the desire and willingness to learn some tools to help us along the way.
You’re welcome to join us on the journey! Learn more about our Leadership Development Mastermind Group and Leadership Coaching.