Classic Leadership Traits and Skills That May Not Show up on Paper
Whether they’re leading a company, a public agency or a nonprofit, the most respected managers and executives share a wide range of personal and professional traits and skills.
Leaders typically boast dozens of talents and attributes in their resumes and biographies. But management experts agree that intangible qualities — one’s persona, character, values and other traits and behaviors that don’t always show up on paper — are classic cornerstones for the success of top-notch leaders. The best leaders:
Employ strong communication skills
Strong communication skills rank high. Studies by the Ken Blanchard Companies have found that more than 40 percent of executives and managers think that a wide range of communication skills are crucial characteristics for leaders. That includes:
- Practicing two-way communication.
- Using listening skills.
- Giving good feedback.
- Defining goals and objectives
- Providing relevant information
More than 40 percent surveyed believe the No. 1 mistake made by leaders is “inappropriate use of communication.” That includes failing to communicate one’s vision, ignoring others’ viewpoints, blaming others and failing to listen to feedback.
Learn from failures
Great leaders have a knack for rebounding from failure. When people make mistakes, it’s human nature to play it safe and avoid risks. But leading management experts such as John Maxwell of the John Maxwell Company stress that successful leaders learn their greatest lessons in life and business from their defeats and setbacks.
Maxwell says leaders and others can learn from losses by:
- Practicing an open spirit of humility, not pride and arrogance.
- Taking responsibility for one’s life, work and growth.
- Making a daily, lifelong habit of improving.
- Giving others hope and inspiration.
- Seeing change as an opportunity, not a threat.
The greatest successes, according to Maxwell, come when people take risks in their areas of strength and skill. As Maxwell tells it, he learns from his mistakes as a seasoned communicator and public speaker, then builds on those lessons and takes even bolder risks. But if he tried to fix his car, he surely would fail, even with the help of a mechanic.
Embrace emotional intelligence and empathy
To create a climate of trust, leaders must use their “emotional intelligence” and practice the softer side of management. The studies by Ken Blanchard Companies found that executives and managers defined these traits and skills as:
- Building trust and rapport with colleagues.
- Understanding and encouraging colleagues.
- Valuing the uniqueness of others.
- Putting the issues and concerns of other people ahead of their own.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, believes that sharing emotions and authenticity deepens work ties with her colleagues. In a widely reported media story, Sandberg said she once broke down and cried in front of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Instead of ignoring or deriding her, Zuckerberg offered a hug.
Sandberg points out that emotions drive everything people do, and that discussing emotions “makes us better managers, partners and peers,” she writes in her autobiography “Lean-In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”
Adopt a global perspective
First-rate leaders — from AT&T Mobile and Business Solutions CEO Ralph de la Vega to Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn — see their employees and organizations from a global cross-cultural perspective. They understand that hyper-globalization, consumer demographics and fast-changing markets require them to engage in what Intel executive Rosalind Hudnell calls “the new calculus of diversity.”
Beyond making token hires for “window-dressing,” the 21st-century leader:
- Seeks new and diverse ways of thinking and innovating without cultural blinders.
- Develops multitalented teams and employees from many backgrounds.
- Hires, trains and promotes people of all ethnic, cultural and religious upbringings.
This isn’t management by political correctness. A growing body of research shows that global business diversity clearly pays. One McKinsey & Company study of 180 companies from 2008 to 2010 found that those with more women and foreign executives boasted 53 percent higher return on their stock value than rival companies.
Build visionary organizations
Contrary to popular myth, the most successful leaders are not godlike, entrepreneurial executives who command the stage with great ideas and products.
Rather, world-class executives are sure-and-steady “architects” and “clock builders,” according to Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, co-authors of “Built to Last,” the best-selling classic business book. Such executives are “organizational visionaries” who construct the foundation and processes of their blue-chip companies — rather than strike it rich with one big entrepreneurial idea.
Collins and Porras cite executives at Boeing, Walt Disney, Procter & Gamble, Walmart and other companies as “clock-building” leaders who have created organizations that will last for decades, beyond the next market cycle.
Edward Iwata is a freelance journalist and editor in Silicon Valley, California, and the author of “Fusion Entrepreneurs: Cross-Cultural Execs & Companies.”Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- "Critical Leadership Skills: Key Traits That Can Make or Break Today’s Leaders," The Ken Blanchard Companies
- Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell, "Lean-In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead"
- John C. Maxwell, "Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn: Life’s Greatest Lessons Are Gained from Our Losses"
- Edward Iwata, "New CEOs Know Diversity Means Profits," Seattle Times
- Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, "Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies"