In this post, I will share my thoughts on 7 positive personality and professional traits that make a great leader in no particular order. The reason I have not specified an order or numbered them is because every leader should strive for all 7. Convincing the reader to adopt some subset of the 7 is not the purpose of this article. Along the way, I will also throw in a few personal stories to highlight my points. Please note that these stories are not intended to be a statement about how "awesome" my leadership abilities are. I am simply pointing out instances where I have tried my best to embody these traits and be the best leader that I could in different circumstances. Perhaps I will write another post covering the mistakes I have also made along the way because I, being human, am certainly not perfect.
A great leader...
Practices radical transparency and honesty
You can read up on the concept of Radical Transparency on any number of websites. For the purposes of this article, I am primarily referring to the fact that a leader's job is to shield his or her team from chaos, politics, priority changes, budget snafus, etc. It is not to shield them from information. Everybody involved in a work relationship is an adult and deserves to be treated as such. No matter the information, sharing and discussing it in a controlled way is far superior to the alternative because the team is always going to find out regardless of any attempts to prevent it. Certainly there are times when a leader is simply unable to share information, and this is where the honesty also kicks in. When the team inevitably asks the leader what they know of a given situation, it might be easier to respond that they know nothing. Honesty, though, calls for the leader to let it be known that they have knowledge they are currently unable to share. He or she should explain why and then work to get to the point when they can share more as soon as possible.
A leader should both practice transparency and honesty and expect them from his or her colleagues. They must be willing to accept honest thoughts and opinions even if they differ from their own or provide constructive criticism. It is important to build a culture where such interactions are openly accepted and encouraged while also striving to be tactful in the approach (i.e. do not just call out somebody in the middle of a meeting).
I have experienced a few occasions in the past where my level of transparency and honesty have been questioned for being possibly being too "extreme". This typically comes from old-school leaders who do not believe in the same philosophy, but I can honestly say that, over 20+ years of working, I have never had an individual whose attitude, quality of work, happiness, etc. has ever been negatively impacted because I was transparent and honest with them. I have also never had another leader tell me that they wish I would provide less detail of the work my team is doing, the status of our platform, and the successes and roadblocks we have experienced because they do not want to know.
Leads from the front
A leader should never ask his or her team to do something they would be unwilling to do themselves. I am not talking about specific tasks as the leader is often not capable of executing tasks in which a member of their team specializes. I am talking about less tangible things. If a leader expects their team to work overtime, the leader should also be willing to put in the extra effort. If a leader expects their team to give up vacation time, the leader should also be willing to make the same sacrifice. If the leader expects the team to "sell" an initiative to other leaders, he or she should be right next to their team selling it and putting their own neck on the line if the initiative falters. A leader must be out ahead of his or her team doing their best push aside all the roadblocks, taking the same risks, and putting in the same effort. They cannot sit back and critique and second guess from behind.
When I worked for a large consulting company several years ago, I was in a technical and people leadership role that could have allowed me to sit back and tell people what to do while working a 9-to-5 schedule. Instead, I decided to take a very pro-active approach to the technical side by working ahead to figure out things that the team would need the next week or the next month so that I could provide guidance when we got to that point in the effort. I also helped the team execute upon all of the promises each agile sprint to ensure that everything was completed when it was an option to simply sit back and point out how specific team members had not completed their assigned tasks. This allowed me to get to know each team member, develop very solid relationships built on respect and trust, keep the clients happy, and, in the end, help to make everybody more efficient while improving work/life balance through better sprint planning. Leading from the front is definitely not the easy path, but it is the right path to take.
Is emotionally consistent
Every leader has a style, and colleagues can become accustomed to just about anything if that style is applied consistently every day. So, a leader must pick their style and stick to it versus setting up a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation where colleagues never know which leader is going to show up to a given meeting or interaction (in-person, phone, email). This is not to say that a leader can never make a change, and this goes back to transparency and honesty. If a leader sees an opportunity for self-improvement, he or she should be open with their team and bring them along on that journey.
More years back than I care to acknowledge, I played high school football. I still vividly remember two of the coaches in particular. All of the kids were essentially terrified of one coach because he could shift from being friendly and supportive to being a raving, cursing lunatic in a matter of moments. We never knew who was going to show up for each practice. On the other hand, there was a coach that everybody liked who was 3/4 of the way to raving lunacy at all times. We all just acclimated to his style and knew exactly what to expect and how to keep him happy. I am certainly not advocating raving lunacy as a leadership style, but the key is that people can deal with consistent behavior even if they sometimes disagree with it. At the very least, it gives the leader the ability to consciously analyze themselves and how their style impacts their team in order to execute changes for the better over time in collaboration with their team.
Exercises reasonable empathy
This is the one point (the "reasonable" qualifier) that I believe may evoke some negative feedback in this article because empathy in leadership is a very hot topic right now. Empathy is, indeed, critically important both for work and personal life, but a leader needs to draw the line so that colleagues are not taking advantage by seeing just how much they can get away with. This is not for the benefit of the leader but for the benefit of the rest of the team who are not trying to take advantage. If they see a colleague getting away with things that they should not, it negatively impacts the rest of the team. This, however, is a very delicate situation and must be approached thoughtfully and cautiously to ensure that the leader is finding the right balance.
At a previous leadership role, I was given the unenviable task of writing a review for an under-performing colleague even though I had minimal experience with that colleague at the time. I was flat out told to write a negative review so that the colleague could be put on a plan and set up for subsequent termination. Exercising a reasonable amount of empathy called for me to interview other team members with whom the colleague had worked and particularly the colleague himself to understand the situation before blindly following instructions. During this process, I learned that the colleague had been asked to execute work that he was physically incapable of executing - not out of laziness or lack of caring but a literal inability to see the computer screen the same way the average person does. He was afraid, though, to admit this and risk negative repercussions, and the rest of the team was not really aware of the situation. After learning of this, I wrote up a much more reasonable review pointing out the issue and then spent the next few months mentoring him on the back-end development that did not require the same visual abilities as front-end development. This also meant re-organizing the team to account for the change in workload, and the team was willing to exercise reasonable empathy when they understood the situation. Through the hard work this colleague was willing to put in, the understanding and trust of the team, and some assistance from me, the colleague became a much more successful developer and contributor to the team.
Decisively builds consensus
Sometimes leaders describe themselves as "consensus builders" because they see themselves as open-minded, but they often forget an important piece to the puzzle. A leader certainly needs to be open to ideas and collaborative with colleagues of all levels, but they also need to then assimilate all of that information and form a decisive action plan to move forward. This latter part is often overlooked. Just being open and collaborative does not move the needle. A leader must get all parties on the same page and moving forward together. He or she cannot expect that the colleagues with varying opinions will somehow find a cohesive direction among themselves without the leader's further involvement. A leader must dictate the direction of execution without being a dictator. The action plan may not satisfy all parties, but integrating the top ideas into a cohesive plan based upon the current situation and knowledge is the best any leader can do.
Puts the team's needs first
For a leader, putting their team's needs in front of their own can take many shapes. Perhaps it is the leader putting himself or herself into an uncomfortable situation that goes against the grain because they know it is the right thing for the team. It can also be the leader openly celebrating the accomplishments of his or her team, inviting team members to leadership meetings to present those accomplishments, and generally acknowledging the team instead of taking the successes as their own. The same can be said for failures where the leader should acknowledge their own role while helping to rectify the situation versus throwing a team member under the bus. This is a huge topic with a lot of applicable scenarios, but the key is to adopt the "we" mentality and even the word itself when discussing the team's efforts. A leader cannot always do what is best for the team, but the team should always be a top consideration in every decision.
When a start-up for which I was the VP of Engineering was acquired, an issue arose when the acquiring company sent very low offers to all of the existing employees - myself included. Because the executives of the start-up had left as part of the acquisition, that meant I was the most senior leader remaining. After discussing with the team, we came up with a plan that each person would share with me what they desired to make. I, in turn, would craft a write-up for each colleague with my honest assessment of their skills, what they contributed to the team, and what their salary should be. My portion was done privately with the trust of the team that I would be fair and honest. I then flew to the headquarters of the acquiring company and negotiated the salaries and bonuses of all my colleagues. While they did not all get exactly what they desired, each received a salary that was at least 35% higher than the initial offers with appropriate, annual bonus potentials as well. Only at that point did I negotiate my own salary. From a humanity and leadership perspective, this just seemed like the right thing to do. I worked closely with and liked all of these colleagues and wanted to see them treated fairly so that we could continue our collaboration. From a personal perspective, it also did not make sense for me to negotiate my position while the rest of the team got frustrated and possibly left for other opportunities. A leader without a team is not really a leader.
Accepts that failure is always an option
Business and technology are changing rapidly and dramatically. It is not possible to create a perfect plan and then execute flawlessly on that plan. Accepting that failures will happen and iterating upon the best ideas formed using the most up-to-date knowledge at the time are key. A leader must be willing to both accept and admit mistakes within and outside of his or her team. The key when something goes wrong is to understand where things stand and to take decisive action to improve the situation while being honest and transparent along the way. Certainly, there are more considerations if a colleague is being intentionally malicious. Typically, though, what we might call a "mistake" in business is actually a decision that was made with the best intentions that seemed right at the time but turned out, in hindsight, to be incorrect. Everyone should learn from mistakes but what is the benefit in lingering on something that, say six months ago, seemed like the best decision? Even worse, what is the benefit of trying to assign blame six months later? Simply use whatever new knowledge has come to light since that time, build a consensus for the best approach to move forward, and take action under a new plan.