We all can identify outstanding bosses or mentors in our lives, but sometimes it is hard to pinpoint the skills that made them so noteworthy — particularly when you have not held a leadership role yourself.
Is an effective leader someone who can simply outline a plan of action for you, or is it someone who can instill a sense of motivation and innovation within you? Is it someone who can solve immediate problems, or is it someone who can think ahead to spur change for an organization or industry as a whole?
As American business magnate, investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet once said, “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” That kind of leadership and foresight is what drives companies forward. It is just one of the many characteristics that set great leaders apart.
To fill in the gaps so we can all better understand the qualities of a good leader, we sought out successful business professionals to shed light on some of the softer skills that helped them succeed in their leadership roles.
8 qualities of great leaders
1. They show empathy and care about their team’s input
Anyone in a leadership role will tell you that people won’t always agree with your decisions. Opposing viewpoints are natural in the workplace and should be embraced, as long as they are met with understanding, empathy and a willingness to understand the other person’s viewpoint.
For Fred Winchar, the president and CEO of Tradition Media Group, LLC., understanding the perspective of each team member helps him make informed decisions that ultimately make his company more successful.
“I am not always right,” Winchar admits. “The people who are doing the job actually know more than me on many things. I try as much as possible not to be pompous.” If he were to act pompous or arrogant, he says, his staff may refrain from sharing with him the problems they encounter and the solutions they use to overcome them. That damaging mindset could allow his business to become stale or fail altogether.
2. They show humility and don’t abuse their authority
Your ascension into leadership is a reflection of your own skill and ability, but it is important to remember that the people you lead are critical to your success. Give credit where credit is due and understand that everyone has a stake in the game. It’s not just you out there doing all the work yourself.
You can’t simply use your position to force people into agreement or make themselves available at your whim. Winchar calls that “pulling the ‘president’ card.” To him, humility is a tremendous asset. “When the leader is able to truly think in terms of accomplishing the mission and not reflecting on personal acclaim or who gets credit, it’s powerful,” he explains.
3. They have respect for others and know that everyone has unique priorities
Employees are hired to do a job to the best of their ability, but that does not mean they prioritize their work to the same degree you do as a leader. People have families and personal lives. They have obligations at home or personal goals they are working toward. They should not have to compromise those for the sake of their employment, and if they feel like they have to, they may not be as motivated to stick with you.
The pressure of an executive position can be tough to handle, but Merrie Spaeth, president of Spaeth Communications, Inc., knows how to insulate her team from that pressure as much as possible. Laura Barnett, the company’s vice president, shared her perspective on Spaeth’s leadership style.
“She respects family time,” Barnett says. “Merrie has a generous vacation policy and understands that family emergencies arise. As long as you’re getting your work done, you have immense freedom and flexibility to do your job.”
Spaeth is also known for giving employees room to focus on their own goals at work. “She gives you freedom to work on projects you want,” Barnett adds. “We’re a small agency and are blessed to work with fascinating clients. If you have an interest in a particular area, or want to learn more about an industry, you can join that client’s team.”
It’s this flexible level of understanding that can make all the difference for employees who may have felt unseen or underappreciated at former workplaces.
4. They are transparent with the team and are open to honest communication
When people fear leadership, or get the sense that their input no longer matters, they either disengage or leave an organization. In order to succeed as a team, you need everyone to pull their weight and contribute. Great leaders understand this. Success can’t happen if everyone feels his or her views are falling on deaf ears.
That is why Winchar has an open-door policy at his company. “This is not about my door being physically open,” he says. “It also means being transparent and flexible.” A few times a week, he meets with his group in a large circle to discuss a variety of business issues, collaborating and making decisions together.
“Although the final say is mine, everyone feels comfortable with sharing their opinion. I know them personally, and they know me and my life story. They see all the failures and successes along the way. In the thick of things, I am shoulder to shoulder with them handling the same work,” he says. “I ask advice from the staff on how I could have done better.”
Along with that organic feedback from his employees, he has the opportunity to share his vision of the future with each staff member. In doing so, he helps them develop a clear career path. “They know I am invested in their lives and really understand that we all meet life on life’s terms, not just mine,” he reveals.
5. They lead by example and put out what they want to get back
The strongest leaders will tell you that simply handing down orders and tasks is not necessarily the most effective means of motivating your employees. Some of the best leaders instead choose to lead by example, playing an active role in fostering the behaviors and culture they want to see in their employees and the organization as a whole.
Sacha Ferrandi, the founder and head principal of Source Capital Funding, Inc., tries to be the good example of what he wants to see in his employees. He argues that employees give you more respect and are more productive if you show them that you are there to help as an expert resource for what you are asking them to accomplish.
“It’s impossible to deny that the work ethic of an entrepreneur is contagious,” Ferrandi argues. “If you work hard for them, they are more likely to return the favor and work hard for you.”
6. They are patient and forgiving when mistakes are made
Your job as a leader is to help your team be as effective and efficient as possible while keeping everyone motivated and positioned for personal success. Patience and understanding are critical in this endeavor. If mistakes are made along the way, a good leader will be patient and understanding while striving to correct the behavior for the good of the organization.
Winchar says he tries to avoid terminating employees if at all possible, not only because there is a significant financial cost to replacing a member of the team, but also because they’ve entrusted him to provide them with the tools they need to be successful.
When he notices that an employee is not successfully completing a task, Winchar makes a point to ask himself if he has in any way set up a flawed system or neglected to provide the training needed to overcome the challenges they encounter. The bottom line, he says, is this: “When I hire someone, I have a solemn duty to do everything in my power to make them successful. They trusted when they took the job that I would do everything in my power to make this part of their life journey a positive one — and if I am not a man of my word, then what am I?”
Winchar recalls this kind of leadership quality in his mentor, John Sessa, who is now an English and economics teacher in Vietnam.
“When given authority to manage early in life, I made many very costly mistakes,” he recalls. “John ultimately would bear that responsibility to his higher-ups, but he would also call me into his office and without being a monster to me, make it very clear that my actions as a manager had a direct impact on both people and finances.”
In reminiscing about the impact this had on him, Winchar maintains that Sessa taught him how to pause, think before he acts, and take into consideration that each mistake could be an opportunity to learn and take responsibility for his decisions.
7. They hold themselves accountable
If you want to take credit for an organization’s success as a leader, you better also be willing to take the blame for its shortcomings.
For Jacob Dayan, a partner and co-founder of Community Tax, this is a critical component for leadership in his organization. Dayan believes in taking ownership of his own mistakes. He argues that without that quality, leaders struggle to take advantage of opportunities to improve.
“As a leader, you have to be able to say, ‘My fault, I’m sorry,’” he explains. “It’s unreasonable to expect this to be an enduring trait of your organization if the leader isn’t willing to raise his hand when it’s the right thing to do.” Dayan knows that it is up to him to set a tone for his company by being accountable for his mistakes, explaining what he’s doing to improve and not repeating them.
8. They are innovative and have a commitment to continual learning
Stagnation is the downfall of many executives and managers. They reach a level in their careers where the desire to go further begins waning and the motivation to innovate – both within the organization and within themselves – loses importance.
Once you lose your desire to develop your skills, you can lose your drive to succeed. Boredom sets in and you can end up maintaining the status quo rather than driving your team forward. Entrepreneurial thinking goes a long way in the business world, whether you are working at a startup or are part of a long-standing company that has already built a solid reputation in the market.
Evan Harris, the co-founder & CEO of SD Equity Partners, knows what it is like to feel the pressure of innovation and continued learning. “For a [new business] to be successful,” he explains, “it must do things that other companies aren’t, whether that’s reflected in their processes or the types of products that they offer.”
When Harris started his business, he knew the importance of innovation — something that carries through today in its operations. “Not only will this innovation set you apart from competitors, but it will also create a company culture that fosters creativity,” he says. “Your example of innovation will trickle down to your employees and help them to look at what can be improved as well.”
Your leadership potential starts with skill development
Leaders in any organization play a critical role in employee success. Some people are born to play that role. They are naturally sought out for their guidance and expertise. They care about the people around them and have the ability to foster teamwork, even in challenging situations.
Others are given the opportunity to move up in a career, but may be less prepared to handle the pressure. Perhaps they struggle with delegation or have a tough time seeing the big picture at an organization. Ultimately, even if they manage to advance in a career, their teams may not always succeed.
Not all leaders are created equal, and that is okay. These are skills that can be taught if you approach management with an open mind, are willing to look at the big picture of your influence at an organization and have a commitment to continual learning that can develop your characteristics as a leader.
No matter where you are in your professional life, there is still an opportunity to grow and learn. Higher education could provide a means for you to hone your leadership skills and move into a management position that suits your goals.
To learn more, check out the Bachelor of Science in management degree program at Hodges University. Take your skills to the next level and become the leader you know you can be.