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If you talk to ten people about what it takes to be an effective leader, you will get ten different answers. Every person has a different point of view about leadership and what traits make for a good leader. People usually assign leadership to position, but as Donald H. McGannon, who ran Westinghouse Broadcasting Corporation and served as president of the National Urban League, said: “Leadership is action, not position.”
Mr. McGannon’s definition of leadership hits the mark. Leadership is not about position. I learned this concept early in my business career. I saw individuals with leadership titles who did not embody what it means to truly lead.
Everyday leaders have the power to influence those around them, either positively or negatively. The mandate for leaders is to be leaders who strive to positively impact those around them, causing those influenced by their leadership to become better leaders themselves.
Leadership is vital for any organization to thrive and survive. In my twenty-five years of leadership, I have realized five essential traits that leaders must embody to help them lead well.
A clear vision is essential for any leader to lead well. I have seen organizations succeed because they had a clear vision that inspired everyone connected to it to make it a reality. I have also seen organizations fail because they lacked a clear vision that left those connected to it confused. Part of being a leader is crystallizing the right pathway to success in order to establish the concrete steps needed to achieve an organization’s goals. A clear vision enables a leader to confidently ferry an organization through external roadblocks and obstacles.
When leaders understand their vision, it drives them to push through life’s pressures to position themselves to make their vision a reality. Every invention, project, movement, creation, and transformation starts with an idea, an imagination, and a vision of what’s possible.
Leaders with clear vision know precisely what they want and make it clear to everyone connected to them. Not only do they constantly speak and think about the vision, but they also write it out in detail, develop a plan, and take consistent action to make it a reality.
Communication is the lifeblood of effective leadership. How can any organization effectively move forward if the vision has not been communicated to all levels of that organization? Great leaders make sure their message is plainly communicated and understood by everyone connected to it so they can share in the process of making the vision a reality.
Leaders do their organization a disservice if they don’t communicate their vision in a clear way. Leaders should be prepared to talk about and explain the vision in detail to everyone and everywhere they go.
Communication is more than relaying information. A huge part of communication as a leader is the ability to listen. Listening is a lost art. Some leaders spend more time forming what they want to say rather than listening. Listening is as important in communication as talking. The most effective leaders listen more than they talk.
Maintaining focus can be difficult for any leader. There are a million things that must be done. There are meetings to attend, phone calls to make, and projects to finish. The list is daunting and many leaders believe they must have a hand in everything. They buy into the multi-tasking lie that tells them that they must juggle several things at one time.
In the beginning, it seems that they can pull off the impossible. They look like superman or superwoman to everyone watching. People applaud them for their versatility and perseverance. With success comes more and more tasks to complete. Instead of delegating tasks, they take on more responsibilities than they have the bandwidth to adequately handle.
Without a clear focus, a leader can easily become sidetracked by the millions of daily distractions. Focused leaders are locked into where they want to go. They let nothing derail their progress. Focused leaders see the big picture of where they want to go, the details on how to get there, problems that may arise, and anticipate the solutions to those problems.
Secure leaders understand that a large part of their responsibility is to develop and empower others. They are not afraid or intimidated to help others succeed because they understand that they cannot lead alone. Empowering others to lead is the key to building confident leaders and effective teams.
Organizations become more successful when everyone feels like they are contributing to the vision. When leaders acknowledge the strengths and contributions of those that they lead, they have more engaged team members.
Empowering people to lead builds their confidence and commitment in their own work and self-sufficiency. They can be depended on to get the job done and get it done well. This takes the pressure off of leaders, allowing them to spend time leading and pursuing their macro-visions for their organizations.
Great leaders take consistent action. They do not sit around waiting for things to happen. They don’t ask permission from others. They develop a plan, set specific goals, connect with others to help with the plan, and then get to work.
Great leaders know that victory is only possible after you take action, but they understand that high reward often comes with high risk. When they fail, they learn from their mistakes, recalibrate, and go back to the drawing board.
In total, a good leader serves as a powerful motivator for others. Respect is earned by a leader’s daily commitments and actions, not by the laurel-like titles and positions that accompany their name. As the late Jack Welch, former CEO of GE once said:
“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”