Experts weigh in based on years of observations and advice on what works and what doesn't in leading companies
Being a leader isn’t easy—transcending above the everyday happenings of an organization to effectively move it forward (instead of just doing people’s jobs for them) is a big leap. It takes a handful of character qualities to be the kind of leader that propels the ship forward and inspires the crew, rather than just leaves it floating in the same spot.
Former Columbus advertising agency owner Artie Isaac is an executive coach who works with CEO peer groups to foster genuine sharing and advice through Vistage International. Beth Flynn is a leadership consultant and trainer at Ohio State University’s Leadership Center. Emerging from their thoughts on leadership is a selection of qualities all leaders should strive to cultivate.
“That’s the only way to get up the mountain,” says Isaac. “Somebody’s got to tell us how and for what purpose each of us should subvert our individual ego in order to do something that only a team can accomplish.”
Honestly understanding oneself ranks at the top of the list. Not just understanding strengths—but more importantly, weaknesses. “You need to know what you’re good at, but you also need to know who you need to have on your team that can support you where you’re not as strong,” says Flynn. “If you do most of the talking, then your employees are just going to agree with you. But if you truly listen to their views and their thoughts and are open to the idea that they know what they’re doing—they may have a lot of expertise that you don’t have.”
Since a leader’s job is not to do the work of the employees—or even to manage it—the leader is free to focus on higher-level tasks such as clearing away obstacles for employees to work most effectively, says Isaac. He also has thoughts on the fate of any leader who is confident without self-awareness—they are “in danger of becoming buffoons. We all know what this looks like.”
Humility (or confidence)
Related to self-awareness are humility and confidence. Some leaders need more of it, while others need less, Isaac says. In his years of experience, he’s noticed a pattern: Male leaders could benefit from becoming more humble, and women leaders more confident.
“Men are rewarded early in life for not being humble,” he says. “And just culturally, women are rewarded early in life for demurring.” Nonprofit CEOs, which often are women, says Isaac, are also often self-diminishing. “In some ways, that’s a theft from the world because we need these people to be their biggest, boldest selves.”
Rigidity is not a useful quality in leadership, as neither employees nor the business itself is static. Flynn brings up “situational leadership”—the ability to adapt leadership style to meet people where they are. Perhaps a leader spends more time with a new employee or someone learning a new role or skill. A more seasoned employee may not need so much attention. As far as company change, which is inevitable, “A leader has to be flexible enough to lead their employees through the changes and know that change is life in our organizations,” says Flynn. It is important to understand that not everyone will accept the change at the same time. “A leader has got to be able to forecast what’s going to happen next, and then, ‘what do these people want and how can I clear out the obstacles,’ ” says Isaac.
In the midst of the changes a company goes through, Flynn says a leader must “hold steady” as a solid and trusted person among the uncertainty. Isaac says stability is important for a leader to exhibit at all times. Isaac cites the doctoral research of Timothy Russell, founder of the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, who studied the leadership styles of major symphonic conductors and Fortune 500 CEOs. Russell found what mattered most was that the leader act one way all the time, good or bad. When employees never know who they are going to get, it promotes “a culture that’s reactive, dependent upon a culted personality at the top,” says Isaac. “If you always know who the boss is, how the leader shows up—then it almost doesn’t matter if the leader shows up. We can work imagining the leader like a little Obi-Wan Kenobi on our desk top and we know what he would say.”
A leader’s main priority should be the people on the team—not how to manage their work but how to clear away obstacles, protect from unnecessary distraction, give and earn trust, engage and empower. This can be a difficult transition for someone who has never had to zoom out so far.
“Leaders sometimes feel like they have to show everyone they’re not too good for the work and they will roll up their sleeves and burn the midnight oil,” says Isaac. “That’s good up to a point, but I think that leaders do that sometimes to feel of value and to prove their own competence. The problem is that they’re proving the wrong competence. They’re proving an old competence.”
Focus on people and “most people will live up to your expectations of them,” says Flynn.