It was recently my good fortune to attend and participate in the National Diversity Council’s Annual Conference on Diversity and Inclusion. In preparation for a panel discussion on leadership, I had to ponder the question: what makes a great leader?
It’s a tough question to answer. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to isolate a single quality, mind-set, behavior, or attribute that signifies greatness. As great leaders tend to embody many qualities, all working in concert, I focused on seven attributes that in combination create greatness.
Great leaders are self-aware. They understand how their behaviors, words, actions, and even aspects like body language impact others. They seek feedback on their leadership. They try to see themselves through others’ eyes. This reflection can be difficult for some people, but it is incredibly important for leaders. They know that perception is part of their reality.
2. Ability to connect and collaborate
In the business world today there’s a level of inter-connectedness that we have never seen before. No longer operating in isolated, hierarchical environments, leaders now must thrive in an atmosphere that’s fluid and more democratized. Connecting and collaborating intensively across the organization is necessary for success. As so many teams today are cross-functional, connecting establishes valuable relationships for themselves and others across the organization. Today we can connect and interlink through virtual platforms and tools in increasingly authentic and intuitive ways that were previously unimaginable.
As for collaboration, it often comes down to this simple statement: collaborative leaders will place team needs and priorities above personal needs and priorities, and they actively foster synergy within the team and across teams. Successful leaders actively involve others in making decisions that affect them and, likewise, they give credit to others where credit is due.
3. Leading through clearly communicated, passionate, and optimistic vision
There is a lot packed into this one: Successful leaders craft a transformative vision and share it with a sense of passion. They mobilize their teams to execute the vision and sustain momentum through constant reinforcement of that vision. This approach demands a consistent, authentic and transparent communication strategy. So while some leaders may be poor communicators, effective communication to support vision is critical in today’s context, and great leaders work to develop the skills to do so.
4. Being open to diverse thinking and ideas but also being decisive
Great leaders acknowledge and accept that they don’t have all the answers. They are learning as they lead the way forward. They have an ability to be open to diverse thinking and yet recognize they must be decisive in a world of complexity, data overload, and rapid pace.
Being open means asking a lot of questions and then listening with an open mind. It means welcoming different perspectives, ideas, and opinions while creating an environment free from fear of ridicule or punishment. The best leaders learn from anyone – a new hire, customer, supplier– and they are open to what they are hearing. Being open also means undertaking an objective analysis of the data before arriving at conclusions. The availability of so much data today and the speed of processing that data even in real time allows for more input into decision-making, but leaders must have a good sense for when they had enough data to make a good business decision. They know they must also be decisive to lead effectively. The best leaders can strike that delicate balance.
5. Capacity to be agile, adaptable, and flexible
Great leaders today are aware of digital threats and opportunities, of course, but they must go beyond simple awareness and demonstrate the ability to be flexible, agile, and able to respond effectively to these changing environments. They can rapidly shift direction when necessary, both to the expected and to the unexpected, all while working with and guiding the teams and individuals they lead. They have the capacity to improvise when necessary, and they’re open to change and new challenges.
6. The ability to empower and continuously motivate those they lead through individualized consideration.
Effective leaders can look at every individual they lead and figure out how best to develop, coach, and motivate them as individuals, to obtain the greatest outcomes from them.
7. The ability to innovate and lead innovation
Great leaders improve organizational performance through innovation. They encourage the application of original and creative thinking to both existing and emerging business models, processes, and products. Developing the capability to envision, foster, and apply innovation is fundamental to leadership today. Driving innovation means using good judgment to determine how, where, and when it will be deployed to create maximum business value. It also means finding ways to get the most creative thinking from the team. Creativity and innovation go hand-in-hand, and great leaders provide a welcoming home for original, imaginative thinking.
Those are the magic seven qualities, attributes, mind-sets however you want to catalog them. By any name, when combined, they create great leaders, and great leaders build great teams which deliver exceptional results for their organizations.
Heide Abelli is the SVP of Content Product Management at Skillsoft.