By exhibiting some or all of these characteristics, individuals who show great leadership qualities can inspire their people to accomplish amazing things.
By Peter Christian
Leadership is the ability to motivate a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal. In business, this means directing the organization with a strategy and actions to meet the company’s goals and objectives.
Effective leadership is based upon communicating ideas to others in a way that engages them to act as the champion wants them to act. The leader is the inspiration and manager of the action. He or she is the person that possesses the combination of personality and skills that inspires others to actively follow his or her direction.
Company leaders are facing a dilemma. Employers now have to cater to the needs of the millennial generation who, on average, change jobs four times before they reach the age of 32. Many don’t feel empowered in their current jobs, and a large number don’t trust management. Also, too many leaders are failing to foster a sense of trust and loyalty in their employees.
That doesn’t have to be the case. Individuals who show great leadership qualities can inspire their people to accomplish amazing things, by exhibiting some or all of the following eight characteristics:
Ideal Leadership Characteristics
Authentic enthusiasm for a business, its products, and its mission cannot and should not be faked. Employees immediately recognize insincere cheerleading. When leaders are sincerely enthusiastic and passionate, it is noted and spreads throughout the organization. Insincere or contrived passion turns people off, and the perpetrator is identified as a phony, who cannot be trusted.
By giving proper credit for accomplishments, acknowledging mistakes, and truly putting safety and quality first, great leaders demonstrate real integrity at all times. This is done, even if that isn’t the best thing for the project at hand or the company’s bottom line. Loss of trust is difficult or even impossible to regain.
Great communication skills
Good leaders motivate, instruct, and mentor their people. They cannot have accomplishments if they aren’t very skilled communicators. That also includes listening to others. Poor communication inevitably leads to poor outcomes. Leaders who fail to develop good communication skills are often perceived as being weak or wishy washy.
Great leaders understand that loyalty is reciprocal. They promote this in tangible ways that benefit all members of their organizations, including standing up for them when a crisis and conflict occur. True allegiance is ensuring that all employees have the training and resources necessary to do their jobs. Employees who believe a leader is loyal to them are much more likely to show that person their own loyalty.
Good leaders are willing to take on the risk of decision making. They make decisions and take risks knowing that if things don’t work out, they are first and foremost accountable for them. Those who aren’t decisive are usually ineffective. Instead of making decisions, too many so- called leaders allow debate and indecision to continue and create a terrible situation that satisfies no one. They put too much effort into working on consensus building instead of taking and making a decisive stand on an issue.
Poorly managed organizations try to create leaders from individuals whose only credential is being good at his or her current job. Being good at one’s job doesn’t prove that the individual possesses the competencies needed to be a true leader. Are they really able to inspire, motivate, mentor, and direct people?
Clear eyed executives must honestly make sure that they are elevating the right person(s) to leadership roles. Otherwise, employees will easily detect the scam and rebel against the newly minted, figurehead “leader.”
Good leaders demonstrate the ability to train and develop the employees reporting to them. They are not afraid to empower those they lead to act autonomously, and to support their decisions. When employees are empowered, they are more likely to make decisions that are in the best interest of the company. When workers go a bit off script, the leader is there to redirect them before they go off the proverbial cliff.
People are more likely to follow the lead of those they like. The best leaders are well-spoken, approachable, and friendly, and show sincere concern for others. People at all levels of an organization find it easy to relate to them and follow their lead.
Each of these qualities is recognized as valuable to great leadership. Without them, an individual must rely on individual aspects to compensate for their shortcomings in others. Organizations must learn to identify and develop these traits in order to develop the leaders necessary to drive the organization to where it can and should go.
Great Business Leaders
By virtue of being human, with all of the attendant foibles and imperfections, no one is a perfect leader. In spite of this, many business executives struggle to accept that flaws and mistakes are part of being human. Employees on whom unfair standards or expectations are imposed will withdraw their support of a self-indulgent or over-the-top, egotistical leader. If an executive does not recognize his or her shortcomings, he or she will work with great difficulty to perpetuate the illusion of infallibility.
Employees need assurance that leaders know that they have flaws and will be understanding of their personnel’s errors or shortcomings. Leaders should be up front about what their organization can expect about their personal strengths and weaknesses. They should willingly welcome feedback, encouraging candor when their deficiency becomes problematic for others and owning up when they make mistakes. Owning imperfections wins trust; hiding them doesn’t.
That said, here are five acknowledged business leaders and how they made their leadership styles and their companies widely successful:
“Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.” — Walt Disney
Walt Disney had steadfast perseverance, optimism, innovation, and risk-taking, despite facing many challenges and great adversity throughout his career. Despite many rejections and setbacks, he wouldn’t be swayed from making his ideas a reality. He continued to move ahead, proving his naysayers and critics wrong. There were five values he espoused that helped drive his success as a business leader:
Chase your dream. He wanted to entertain whole families and he did that better than anyone else had ever done.
Believe in yourself. Every time he succeeded, he used that success as the building block for the next big risk; the next big idea. The fact that no one else had done it was never an issue.
Go big or go home. Heard of Walt Disney World? Walt’s wife and brother tried to persuade him to not pursue it. He kept going. Many thought he was crazy to buy thousands of acres of swamp near Orlando, Florida. He didn’t live to see it open, but if you’ve ever been to Walt Disney World, you know it is an astounding, live-action, immensely profitable entertainment experience.
Don’t lose sight of what you are. “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing. That it was all started by a mouse.”
Effectively and passionately communicate your vision. It is one thing to have a dream, but it is quite another to get people to buy into it. Walt not only had a vision, but successfully got others to help him make it happen.
Disney did not do it alone. He often attributed his success to the many talented individuals on his team. He once said, “The whole thing here is the organization. Whatever we accomplish belongs to our entire group, a tribute to our combined effort.” He understood that he could never be successful alone, and that he needed to inspire and motivate his people to be as passionate about a project as he was. He mastered the art of communicating his vision of the future, and that’s what helped to make him a great leader.
Mary Kay Ash
“Leaders teach. They motivate. They care. Leaders make sure that the way to success is always broad enough and straight enough for others to follow.” — Mary Kay Ash
Mary Kay Ash was a trailblazer. Tired of inequality, she formed a company to give women the opportunity to develop into business leaders. In 1963, she launched her business. She turned what was then a male-dominated workplace on its head. She dedicated her life to empowering women and putting them in control of their own futures.
In an article published in Applause® magazine, she outlined what she believed were the five traits a great leader should have:
Confidence. If a leader does not believe in one’s self, no one else will. Confidence must be developed.
Energy. A leader must be willing to do everything he or she asks of their followers. And actually more. Unless you do this, you cannot successfully lead others.
Boldness. This is akin to courage, but is more dramatic. It is a willingness to take chances and experiment. You must have an optimism that rejects and despises the thought of failing.
Concern. People will never follow anyone else unless they feel that a leader really cares about them and their problems.
Faith. A leader must believe in his or her people. They must be firm in the goal toward which he or she is leading them.
Even after her death in 2001, Mary Kay continues to be a source of inspiration to millions today. Her values live on in the company she built. She told others, “Never, absolutely never compromise your principles.” She believed that the right values could carry you to the top. Mary Kay Ash connected a community of women who found confidence through encouragement, and grew it into a global empire.
Steve Jobs was an unconventional leader whose management style certainly wasn’t textbook. He wasn’t known for his consultative or consensus building approach. He demanded excellence from his staff and was known for his blunt delivery of criticism, labeling people who didn’t impress him as “bozos.” Despite this, he is recognized as one of the greatest business strategists of all times.
He and Steve Wozniak started Apple with their own money, making it into the Fortune 500 list by 1983. Jobs then recruited former Pepsi executive John Sculley to take the chief executive officer position, only to be stripped of all his power by him in 1985, when the Macintosh computer was not selling as well as expected and Sculley made known his disapproval of Jobs’ demanding management style.
In the time he was away from Apple, Jobs took on new challenges. At NeXT and Pixar, he was the guy in charge, didn’t answer to anybody, and success or failure rested very heavily on his decisions. At Apple, he’d been constantly fighting partners or superiors to get what he wanted, often blaming others when things didn’t work out and occasionally wrapping himself in glory that rightly belonged to others.
Upon his return to Apple, Jobs exerted his control over every aspect of the business in his quest for perfection. Jobs’s control even extended as far as the design of the company bus and the food served at the cafeteria.
Jobs developed a culture of strict accountability at all levels of the organization. He held a meeting adhering to a strict agenda every Monday, with executives to set the tone for the week. Employees were recruited as specialists and put into roles that made the most of their specific strengths and abilities. Jobs was a passionate advocate for his vision and demonstrated incredible effectiveness at communicating this to shareholders, customers, and staff.
Jobs was far from perfect. He could be arrogant, dictatorial, and mean-spirited, but yet he was an effective leader. This does not invalidate the thought that good business leaders need to be nice, kind, and humble. Leadership style can be and is situational. One style that might work under some circumstances will most likely not work in others. Jobs’s leadership style and his genius in design were key ingredients in Apple’s success. Had he used a different style, he may not have achieved the same results that he did.
He did have three qualities that all great executive leaders have:
A clear vision. He had a vision and made sure that everyone in the company bought into that vision. This created a “higher purpose” for the company that excited Apple employees.
A passion for the company and its people. Through his passion for the company and its products, employees trusted him because he showed time and again his competence in many areas, especially product design and marketing.
An ability to inspire trust. Employees saw that he was not driven by his own ego or by some self-interested needs. Even though he was at times arrogant and somewhat nasty, employees knew that he valued them and the work they produced to high expectations.
“As long as you’re consistent with your values, the decisions you make for short-term results are often the right ones for long-term results as well.” — Lynn Jurich
Lynn Jurich co-founded Sunrun in 2008 in her business partner’s (Edward Fenster’s) attic. He approached his Stanford business school classmate about starting a solar energy company. Initially, her impression of the industry was that it was expensive and would never become a mainstream technology. But through thought and persuasion, she eventually jumped on board. The journey was rocky, but they survived the 2008 financial crisis and took the company public in 2015.
Today, the company is a top solar firm in the U.S. and is worth over $3 billion. Lynn has been a driving force who practices the following leadership principles:
Think long-term, in terms of decades and not years. Good things take time to develop. Be patient and work hard, and the results will come. No one has changed the electricity grid and physical infrastructure in more than 100 years to meet the needs of our innovating society. The time is now.
Spot and develop potential. Opportunities are all around us. Find the one that makes sense and gets you excited and go for it. When she started Sunrun, 100 percent of people told her it was a mistake and that she was crazy to leave her job in private equity. But she believed in the possibility to power our entire world with the sun, and wanted to build a community to do it.
All people and all circumstances are your allies. She focuses on this at the start of every day. It’s made her more comfortable with risk taking and “failure.”
Be optimistic. Optimism is part of what helps motivate people to attack a hard problem. She never wants to be one of those people who sticks their head in the sand when faced with a challenge. She wants to believe it can be solved.
Approach problems from a place of abundance, not scarcity or fear. A customer-centered system cannot be achieved by one company, or one industry alone. That’s why her company, Sunrun, is working with utilities across the region on grid services projects. That will ensure that they are building a distributed, resilient system that is a win-win for all parties.
Today, there is still a small percentage of women CEOs, particularly in the Fortune 500. Lynn feels that we can’t expect more women to become CEOs overnight. There is still a lot of cultural and workplace bias that needs to be overcome. Nothing will happen on this front unless society addresses gender equality, diversity, and inclusion head on. But with women like Lynn Jurich, we are on our way.
Bill Gates was known as a boss who encouraged creativity and innovation and recognized individual and team achievements, but was very demanding and slightly abrasive. He had his employees present and report out their ideas and findings to him on a regular basis, regularly interrupting them in order to question and challenge their facts and assumptions. His leadership style was primarily authoritarian, but he was also a transformational leader. He followed a strong vision and had passion for the work he was doing. That helped to energize his people.
Gates focused on transformational leadership because that style came naturally to him. He could adapt to other types of leadership when the need arose, but for the most part, his time at Microsoft was dominated by this style. Here are some of the traits of Bill Gates’s leadership style:
Focus. Gates focused on the one thing he knew best: software. He made it the best it could be. He worked hard to dominate the industry, made execution a top priority, and stuck with the skills that he considered to be his strongest.
The Big Picture. Gates took a practical approach to setting goals. He had a big, realistic, picture in mind. He used a step-based approach to make progress toward his vision.
Creativity. Gates encouraged himself and his people to embrace creativity. He empowered people because each individual’s perspectives helped to create new opportunities to explore ideas. People followed Gates because they knew he could help them to become better leaders.
Caring for others. Gates is one of the most prolific givers to philanthropic causes in the world today. That caring attitude was also present in the workplace, making sure people had the best possible opportunity to find success, if they wanted to.
Education. Learning was a lifelong process under his leadership style. Gates was always working on his public speaking skills, his communication skills, and ways that he could improve his social interactions with others.
Passion. Gates put a lot of love into everything he did for his company. He believed that if something was worth doing, then it was worth doing to the best of one’s ability.
Gates realized that he and his leadership style had flaws. Here are some of the key weaknesses that he identified and tried to improve upon:
Arrogance. There is a fine line that is walked between cockiness and arrogance. He usually felt that his approach was correct. There was always a danger that this could cause problems, especially when there are other ideas to consider.
Overly results driven. Gates was often results-driven, taking an approach sometimes where the ends justify the means, and he became so focused on obtaining the goals that he’d set for himself and his team that he lost track of the logical steps of progression.
Conflict avoidance. Gates would often avoid conflict whenever he could, rather than confront the situation head-on. The act of conflict made him uncomfortable. This unwillingness to confront an issue sometimes allowed negative energy to develop and undesirably influence his team.
Current Leadership Issues and What to Do About Them
What’s most challenging about leading organizations today? The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) gathered input from 700 to 800 middle and executive level leaders in organizations in the U.S. and around the world. Their study found that these leaders consistently face the same basic challenges:
Developing managerial effectiveness. The ability to develop skills, such as time-management, prioritization, strategic thinking, and decision-making, to be more effective at leading the organization.
Inspiring others. The ability to inspire or motivate others to ensure they’re satisfied with their jobs and working to the best of their abilities.
Developing employees. The ability to develop others through mentoring and coaching.
Leading a team. The ability to build, develop and manage teams. This includes instilling pride, providing support, leading a big team, and determining what to do when taking over a new team.
Guiding change. The ability to manage, mobilize, understand, and lead change. This includes knowing how to mitigate consequences, overcome resistance to change, and deal with employees’ adverse reactions to change.
Managing internal stakeholders. The ability to manage relationships, politics, and image. This includes gaining support, managing up, and getting buy-in from departments, groups, and individuals.
Knowing that these challenges are common experiences for middle and senior managers is helpful to leaders and those charged with their development. Individuals can benefit from knowing their experiences aren’t isolated, and can feel more confident reaching out to others for help facing their challenges.
In order to deal with these issues, the CCL identified four things leaders can do:
Set Realistic, but Challenging Goals
Leaders must be proactive in setting goals, as well as establishing the timelines and deadlines necessary to keep them and their teams on track. Distractions can make it easy to lose sight of long-term and even short-term goals. Leaders cannot get sucked into dealing with unexpected issues that should be addressed by others, rather than staying focused on working on issues that matter most to the organization.
While no leader can completely avoid surprises, goal-setting provides a map that the leader can return to time and again to refocus on his or her top priorities.
Leaders will be more productive when they empower their colleagues and employees to take more ownership of specific duties. Effective delegation requires more than just getting a task off one’s desk. It involves a repeating cycle of the following:
Understanding preferences. Effective delegators prioritize their workload and decide which tasks to keep and which to give to someone else. They also understand how much feedback they want from the people they’ve delegated to handle the task(s).
Knowing your people. To delegate effectively, a leader must assign tasks to people that match their knowledge and skills. Delegation, if employed properly, can help reports develop, allowing them to learn as they take on new tasks.
Task clarity. A task’s purpose gives it meaning. By aligning this with team or individual beliefs and goals, delegation can become an opportunity for personal growth.
Assessing and rewarding. A good leader will work with direct reports to develop ways to help them decide if a task has been completed properly, and to reward them appropriately for a job well done.
Maximize Unique Value
Leaders can create value for their organizations by focusing on the unique contributions only they can make. Understanding what those values are and delegating everything else allows a leader to maximize the value to be created for the organization.
Gain Role Clarity
This involves a complete understanding of what the core responsibilities are for the leader’s role, and what are secondary responsibilities or work that belongs to someone else. That won’t stop people from asking the leader to take on other tasks and projects. There are certainly times when taking on additional duties may be required due to unusual circumstances. The most effective leaders understand that they will largely be judged based on how effective they are at completing their core responsibilities.
Leaders who sometimes feel overwhelmed by their work can take heart in the fact that they’re not alone. By focusing on these four key behaviors, starting with goals, they can beat back those feelings and provide more value to their organization.
About the Author
Peter Christian was the founding partner of Enterprise Systems Partners Inc. (espi), a prominent business consulting company in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. He was president for 17 years until he retired from the company in 2018. Prior to that, he was an executive director in engineering, operations, and research and development at Crayola Corporation, contributing significantly to the company’s 700 percent growth over a 15-year period.
He has worked with more than 300 clients throughout the United States in the areas of manufacturing improvements, information system selection and implementation, and project and product management. His more than 40 years of corporate experience includes a track record of accomplishments in operational strategic planning, continuous improvement, lean manufacturing, facility planning, and supply chain. Through his efforts, companies have collectively realized millions of dollars in cost reductions and profit improvements while adding and retaining thousands of jobs.
Peter is the author of the Amazon bestselling business book, “What About the Vermin Problem?” released in February 2020. He has been published in IIE magazine, Industrial Management magazine, the Packaging Journal, the ASQC Journal, IIE Solutions, and Consulting magazine.
Peter holds a B.S. in industrial engineering from Rutgers University and an M.S. in industrial engineering from Lehigh University. He is a certified Jonah with the Goldratt Institute and in Senior Project Management with the AMA. He has been a guest lecturer at the Lehigh University’s Industrial and Systems Engineering Department and an adjunct instructor at Northampton County Community College.