It’s a question that troubled and pained me earlier in my life and career. Even as a young child, I suffered from Imposter Syndrome; I felt like I wasn’t as smart as adults thought I was nor as strong as my karate sensei believed. In college, I was enamored by the incredible intellect that surrounded me in the School of Engineering. As a young software engineer, I wondered if I could ever lead others as I watched leaders around me who seemed to be such natural orators. As a young manager, I used to conceal my young age fearing my team wouldn’t believe in me. I finally reached the point where I couldn’t deal with my lack of confidence anymore, and decided to observe as objectively as I could the patterns of leaders around me, and what it was about their traits or behaviors that allowed them to excel.
I was surprised when I started to realize that it wasn’t necessarily the “smartest” people who were advancing in their careers. As a computer scientist, I was used to evaluating a programmer’s talents based on their ability to quickly and correctly build a really sophisticated piece of software. But that didn’t appear to be much of a factor in predicting leadership ability. In fact, in many cases, some of the smartest engineers I knew saw their careers stagnate over the years.
Later in my career, as I became an executive leader myself who hired and managed leaders, I began to study the patterns of those I hired who continued to grow their leadership skills while others once again seemed to have plateaued. These experiences really allowed me to ascertain exactly what 10 traits and behaviors were most correlated with success as a leader. I might even argue that these same 10 are critical for success and happiness in life.
I humbly share with you what I believe is absolutely paramount to being a great leader. One doesn’t need to be superlative at all 10 to be a leader, but the best leaders, in my humble opinion, are superlative in many of the items below if not all of them.
If you aspired to be a leader and would like to be introspective, I encourage you to judge yourself on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) on each of the elements below, identify your lowest and highest scoring traits, and devise a plan of self-improvement.
A great leader is broadly knowledgeable, an expert in her domain, reliable in her statements, and dependable in her commitments. If she says it, it’s as good as true and done. This is one of the most difficult traits to earn as it takes years and perhaps decades of track record to attain. Credibility isn’t just about expertise, it’s about active listening and attention to detail in conversations that result in a great leader’s ability to have credibility with her audience when she engages them. Who wouldn’t trust a leader like that?
Counterexamples include a person who rarely listens with intent, always has the answer (usually very quickly), is only accurate most of the time, and doesn’t recognize that they’re losing credibility the more they speak; another is a person who makes commitments but doesn’t reliably deliver on those commitments without additional follow-up from the requestor.
Credibility can only take a great leader so far; he must also be articulate in communicating that credibility to others. He’s concise, deliberate, and effective in conveying even the most complex of ideas in-person or in writing. This skill can absolutely be developed, so don’t worry if it’s not your strong suit. Who wouldn’t want to listen to a leader like that?
Counterexamples include a person who struggles to be concise, has a hard time reading the room, or has given up on grammar :-).
Confidence is a complicated trait and frequently conflated with over-confidence. A great leader is confident enough to make difficult decisions that she will undoubtedly face, to hire those even more talented than herself, and to engender clarity around the mountain that must be climbed. This trait is quite common in ambitious people. Would wouldn’t believe in a leader like that?
Counterexamples include a person who only seeks to create junior positions on the team or is unable to solicit additional perspective on difficult decisions.
But too much confidence is the most common obstacle to a leader’s success. A leader who thinks he’s always right never has the opportunity to realize that he’s sometimes wrong. A great leader is open-minded enough to consider contrary opinions and humble enough to change positions in the face of new information. This is one of the most difficult traits to find in leaders; it takes a great deal of humility to be coachable, and I’ve found this trait to be remarkably rare. Who wouldn’t respect a leader like that?
Counterexamples include a person who stubbornly holds onto their long-held positions, approaches, and tacts despite the fact they haven’t proven rewarding; another is a person who frequently isn’t listening intently to the conversation that they frequently miss or misconstrue what was said.
A great leader is anxious to engage her team and spends the majority of her time in the midst of her team as their captain. A great leader multiplies her talent through her team turning tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people into commissioned representatives. That’s the magic, beauty, and exceptionally rare value of great leaders. A great leader is able to hold commissioned team members accountable for their performance. This trait is tough to find when combined with the next one because it’s so much easier for kind, compassionate leaders to avoid confronting performance and challenging conversations.
Counterexamples include a person who is constantly complaining about having to spend time with others and prefers to work alone in the corner with her headphones on; another is a person who will gladly compliment her team when things are going well, but not engage them in constructive criticism when they aren’t.
Commission without compassion makes for an authoritarian form of management that I don’t deem as true leadership. Great leaders have a great deal of compassion for their team and their colleagues; it is that compassion that engenders loyalty.
Counterexamples include a person who is self-absorbed and incapable of empathizing with others’ personal circumstances and goals.
There is a charm to a great leader that draws others to her, and makes her naturally attractive to follow. At a gathering of people, there are those you’re naturally drawn to approach and engage; this is not to be conflated with physical attractiveness, although it would be disingenuous to minimize that aspect of charisma. It would be safe to argue that religious cult leaders exude this trait, and it’s that charisma that enables them to draw followers.
Counterexamples include someone who emanates the impression of not wanting to be approached or engaged.
A great leader isn’t only charismatic, he champions his company’s culture and cadence, his colleagues, and his own leader/boss; note that championing one’s own team doesn’t count here as nearly everyone champions their own team. In that vein, and perhaps most importantly, a great leader champions without a political calculus. A great leader shouts from the rooftops about his pride in his company’s culture, his colleagues’ contribution, his boss’ support, and his team’s performance. This trait requires a willingness to put oneself out there on behalf others. Who wouldn’t want to follow a leader like that?
Counterexamples include a person who selectively champions one or two of his colleagues in a political move against other colleagues; another is a person who disparages his company’s culture, norms, or his boss’ strategy or approach.
A great leader is unequivocally committed to the team’s mission working with intensity to achieve team objectives and, most importantly, serving as a role model of hard work and intensity for the team with no drama. To her, this is not a job, it’s a mission and her objective is to take the hill. She arrives early, is present and engaged during the day, and stays as late as necessary to ensure her team and colleagues are taken care of.
Counterexamples include a person who is distracted by side hustles or side passions that make it hard for her to focus with intensity on her mission; another is a person whose life consists of one dramatic event after another, and is consistently disappearing to take care of them.
Commitment must be accompanied by constructiveness. A great leader focuses on how his team is going to achieve difficult goals and not on why they can’t. He tends to the positive and talks more about “how we can” instead of “why we can’t”. A great leader figures out how to constructively move forward in the face of risks. Who wouldn’t want to follow a leader like that?
Counterexamples include a person who is continually focused on what’s broken, what’s difficult, or what must be changed. It’s easy to point out challenges and opportunities for improvement; what’s hard is signing up to resolve them.