There are lots of different definitions of leaders and leadership, from the Oxford English Dictionary’s “the person who leads or commands a group, organization or country” through to Peter Drucker’s rather reductive “someone who has followers.”
But none of these bring to mind the connotations we have of leadership when we think about it in relation to business; words like “inspire,” “others,” “vision,” “goals” and “empowerment.” So what is leadership? How can we define such a term?
For the purpose of this article, we’ll be thinking about leadership in the most evocative and inspirational sense of the term, particularly in relation to being the head of a team focused on achieving a specific business aim. Perhaps the best definition then would be that of New York Times bestseller Kevin Kruse:
“The process of social influence, which maximises the efforts of others towards the achievement of a common goal”
Look at any great leader from history — in business, sport, military or any other industry — and you’ll notice a wealth of distinctive character traits, from strength and determination to intelligence and eloquence.
But which traits are common to all great leaders? What elements of personality are shared across all the top leaders? We examine eight of the most common traits of truly great leaders, from empathy to decisiveness, from vision to calmness under pressure.
Modern business leaders have to be empathetic towards colleagues, staff and even outside contractors; understanding that every team member is a human being who has their own goals, incentives and personalities outside of the team.
Great leaders embrace the “human” element of human resources; understanding that people aren’t machines and need to be treated with empathy, respect and consideration. This isn’t to say that team members shouldn’t be held to a high standard, but being aware that work isn’t the only thing going on in people’s lives — and utilising this understanding to build relationships and trust — can have a dramatic effect on how team members react to (and communicate with) their leader.
Truly great leaders have the ability to manage different personalities within a team — understanding the emotional makeup of other people and using this understanding to get the very best out of individuals.
You have no doubt read or heard business leaders talk about fostering an “entrepreneurial spirit” throughout their teams, but this is often easier said than done — particularly if the team leader doesn’t possess that entrepreneurial trait.
Great leaders are always innovating — never sitting still, and constantly exploring new opportunities. This entrepreneurial approach to business helps create an ethos of innovation within the team, and allows the team leader to set the benchmark for the rest of the workforce to follow.
For the very best leaders, this entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t stop with the work — it also affects how they manage their team. Top leaders will become a mentor for others, offering employees new opportunities to develop and nurturing future leaders.
Calm and composed
Perhaps one of the most important traits of a good leader — and one clearly visible in the best of them — is the ability to stay calm, composed and level headed throughout periods of pressure whilst still managing to get results.
Top managers achieve this by thinking with their head, rather than their heart. They act strategically and with consideration, always making decisions that are in the best interests of the businesses rather than pushing forward with rash decisions and knee-jerk reactions.
Another way the best leaders manage to stay cool under pressure — and gain an ability to make decisions when up against it — is by staying positive, often using humour and strength of character to guide their teams through difficult periods.
Chances are we’ve all had a boss who’s overly demanding and sets unrealistic targets, resulting in an overworked and under-motivated team.
Setting KPIs, targets and objects is all well and good, but they need to be reasonable and, most importantly, achievable. The best leaders understand that unreasonable expectations will only serve to demoralize the workforce, and they use this key insight to their advantage.
Similarly, when employees fail to meet expectations, good leaders will attempt to understand the reasons behind the failure and address them, rather than simply coming down hard on individuals within the team. A strong leader will have the ability to use their judgment when it comes to both disciplining and motivating employees and will understand that an underperforming team is their responsibility to improve.
A lot of managers and team-leaders will find it hard to delegate many of the key tasks and responsibilities associated with major projects, instead preferring to get the job done themselves. Whilst this is sometimes understandable, it’s not scalable and often a major source of friction among team members.
The best leaders are able to build a team that they are 100% confident in, allowing them to delegate responsibilities and work through others. A major part of successful delegation is having the skill and judgment to identify the right personnel to tackle specific jobs or projects, and the very best leaders consistently demonstrate this ability.
If you look at any successful leader in the modern business world, you’ll notice that they are always surrounded and supported by a talented team — all pulling in the same direction and working for each other. This is because the best leaders understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and they ensure that they build a great team comprised of different personalities and skills. They always support that team, even if they fall short.
To this end, great leaders often demonstrate strong abilities when it comes to hiring, training, support and integration — allowing them to build strong and diverse teams right from the beginning.
Integration is a key element of a leader’s skill set, and the best leaders demonstrate an ability to get teams working well together early on — highlighting and eliminating problems whenever they arise.
Strong decision-making skills are crucial for any manager, and top leaders demonstrate a particularly strong aptitude for it. The most successful and influential leaders are able to devise plans and strategies quickly, then effectively communicate these strategies to their teams.
It doesn’t stop there, however, as great leaders are also experts at ensuring these plans are seen through, regardless of external pressure or unforeseen circumstances.
They are able to continually evaluate their team’s progress, highlighting potential problems or re-evaluating if a strategy isn’t paying the expected dividends.
This ability in top leaders comes from a keen sense of instinct and willingness to trust their gut. It’s not something that can be taught, but rather something that is acquired through experience — something the best leaders often have in abundance.
The last trait we’re going to examine is vision — an innate ability to foresee the end goal and plot a clear path to get there. The best leaders know exactly where they’re heading and are able to share this vision with their team through strong communication and feedback skills, ensuring everyone is fully on board and pulling in the same direction.
The best leaders have confidence in their vision. This confidence is infectious — allowing the end goal to act as a shared motivator for everyone involved.
We’ve had a look at the eight most common traits of great leaders, but in this section we’ll examine some of the less-favourable traits often showed by under-performing managers and poor team leaders. If you want to keep your team motivated and happy, consider avoiding these less-than-desirable traits:
In order to keep your team motivated and all working together, you need to do your utmost to create a level playing field throughout the business, ensuring opportunities are open to everyone, incentives are equal and fair and that the management is always available to all team members, regardless of status or perceived performance.
Developing an ego
Nobody likes an egotist, and this is true in nearly all walks of life — including business. If you think you’re above your team members, and you communicate this attitude, you will alienate them in no time and ensure closed lines of communication and a deep-seeded resentment towards the management.
As a leader, you should show you that know you’re not perfect, and demonstrate that although you’re in charge, you can continually improve and learn along with them — never think you know it all.
Part of the key to delegation and effective management is not appearing too controlling and demanding. Those who bark orders at their subordinates are rarely rewarded with respect from their team, particularly when the same end can be achieved with guidance and understanding.
If you’re a manager, direct your team rather than ordering them, and understand that poor delegation and an overbearing nature can leave people feeling that you don’t trust their judgment or ability to handle responsibility.
The best managers understand that the trust gained from their colleagues is both a privilege and an asset, and are always careful not to abuse it.
If you’re a team leader or manager, you should understand that it takes no time at all to lose the trust and respect of colleagues — even if it’s taken years to build that trust.
One poorly worded email, heated exchange or lapse of judgment can result in colleagues who see you in a much poorer light, making it hard to achieve an effective and successful working environment.
There isn’t a proven formula to what makes a truly great leader, but there’s no doubt that there are similarities in the skills and personalities of the world’s top bosses.
If you’re the leader of a team and want to improve the efficiency, morale, effectiveness, motivational levels or communication of your employees, then you should consider examining the most common traits of great leaders and seeing what you can adopt and implement in your own business.
You can’t become an inspirational leader overnight, but you can implement subtle changes in your working environment or the way you interact with your staff that can make a world of difference. With perseverance, patience, time and experience, your team may consider you among the truly great leaders.