Competent, patient, inspiring, organized, articulate–there are a lot of characteristics that we could associate with a successful leader. Some of those might be based on the skills that we personally believe a leader should possess or the type of leadership style that we think is most effective, but is there a common line through it all? Are there necessary skills and characteristics that all leaders must possess in order to be successful? And if so, what are those skills and characteristics?
To find out, we posited these questions to five thought leaders in the field–John Mattone, Karin Hurt, Melissa Lamson, Morag Barrett, and Richard Banfield–each of whom brought to bear their experience in acting as leaders and their expertise in cultivating leadership in others. What we learned was that, while the skills and characteristics that suit a leader may diverge to some degree, there remains a consensus around the essentials that every successful leader must possess. And those are:
We may believe that the necessity of courage is limited to leaders on the battlefield, but the experts disagree. Instead, they consider the strength to venture, persevere, and withstand both fear and difficulty to be a hallmark of great leadership everywhere.
“You’ve got to have the courage to execute,” says John Mattone, leadership coach to greats like Steve Job and former PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico. While Mattone acknowledges that leaders must be able to quickly and correctly assess a situation and come up with effective means of addressing it, he underscores that the best plan in the world means little if it’s never put into action.
Courage is especially required from those who feel they may not be “natural” leaders, innately confident in their words and deeds. “You’ve got to have the courage to step out of your comfort zone, which a lot of people don’t,” Mattone points out. “How many times have you heard someone say, ‘You know, I should have said something in that situation?’ You’ve got to have the courage.”
Richard Banfield, CEO of the design firm Fresh Tilled Soil and co-author of Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams, readily agrees. “This will be different from person to person and situation to situation, but generally courage is the most important characteristic,” says Banfield. Rather than defining it as an innate quality, he describes courage as a mindset that leaders must increasingly adopt: “This mindset allows the leader to enter every situation as a learning opportunity. Failure just becomes another teacher, and fear subsides. As fear fades, courage replaces it and allows further learning.”
Not to be constrained to just one answer, or to flatten leadership into something so two-dimensional, John Mattone also highlights the importance of vigilance, or a state of watchfulness with an eye to effectivity.
“You’ve got to be vigilant,” says Mattone. He puts special emphasis on the latter phase of the decision-making process, when leaders should be monitoring results to assess their success or alter their approach. It’s not enough to assume you’ve made the right decision; you need to confirm it or shape up accordingly.
“You’ve got to read the results,” he says. “As you adjust, you’ve gotta hone in on, ‘Well, what’s the reaction to my strategy here?’ And then you’ve got to course correct. . . . Keep your eyes wide open and then adjust as needed. To me, if you can’t do those things, you’re going to run into a lot of issues in your business, in your leadership, in your life.”
Unfortunately, integrity is not a word that we hear very often today. Whether it be in government or business, the lack of integrity among our leaders is so common that most people fail to even lament it. But perhaps that’s why it’s so important for leaders to firmly adhere to the values that they espouse.
Former Verizon Wireless executive and one of Inc. magazine’s “top 100 leadership speakers for 2018” Karin Hurt defines integrity as “having a strong sense of your values and doing what you say you will do.” Breaking that down, we see that embracing integrity comes with its own to-do list: understanding your own values; communicating those values to others; and acting in accordance with them.
For Hurt, behaving with integrity also means imparting those values to your team by “setting clear expectations, consistently reinforcing them, and helping your team clear away the clutter.” That process not only ensures that you will be able to lead your team effectively, but that you are all synced in terms of what you’re working towards and why. Integrity should be your motivation, not your millstone.
Many of us have likely heard of, and possibly dismissed, the concept of an “open door policy” as merely a friendly gesture. But the truth is that the experts agree: openness, or the character of being readily accessible and generous, is an integral part of effective leadership.
Melissa Lamson, a leadership coach who’s worked with companies like SpaceX, SAP, and LinkedIn, describes the trifecta of openness as “the ability to listen; to admit when you’re wrong; to show compassion.” Considered throughout the decision-making process, these three skills aid at every point, from accurately assessing the situation, to course-correcting, to building the relationships necessary for future success.
Morag Barrett, author of Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationship, concurs with Lamson. “The essentials, in my experience, are focused on the people-skills that build connection and show compassion for others,” she says. “Research from Google on what makes for a high-performing team demonstrates that psychological safety is a critical foundational element–and you get that through cultivating relationships based on trust, with candor and debate.”
“Think about your best boss or colleague,” she continues. “What makes them stand out for you? My guess is it isn't related to how smart they were or their technical skills. Instead, it’s about how they treated and worked with you, challenged you, gave you feedback you needed to hear versus what you wanted to hear. There's your template for the essential skills and characteristics that leaders must have.”
Courage, vigilance, integrity, openness–the characteristics that leaders must cultivate span a remarkable breadth. While that may appear to make the task of becoming a successful leader all the more difficult, know that each of these characteristics are in fact composites of skills which must be studied and practiced in order to be mastered.
Thankfully, there are many routes to mastery: reading guides penned by experienced CEOs and expert trainers; enlisting the one-on-one aid of leadership coaches; enrolling in formal academic programs that cover organizational leadership and business management. There are lots ways to become the leader you’d like to be–the most difficult step may be in deciding to take the first one.