6 Leadership Traits That Matter the Most

I’ve been fortunate to have worked with and learned from extraordinary business leaders who have differed widely in their leadership traits. Some have been charismatic, some very modest. Some of them had natural leadership abilities, and some worked hard at developing them. But all of these leaders have shared a few crucial attributes. Below are the six key traits of an effective leader.

1. Vision: Setting a Direction

Leadership always begins by setting a direction — developing a vision of the future. A forward-looking vision inspires, clarifies and focuses the work of the team. When there is a clarity of purpose, the team and the people on it overwhelmingly thrive.

An effective leader sets a higher-level, big-picture forward-looking direction for the team. Setting direction is about defining the shared objective for your team, setting matrix against what you will hold them accountable for and provide them ownership. Ownership is giving them the context of what you want them to do and success matrix and then letting the team achieve that objective, much more committed and much more excited about figuring out then “go do this.”

Leadership is about inspiring others to accomplish a shared vision.

2. Communication: Aligning the Team

After defining the vision, leaders need to align the team by communicating direction to the team that understand the shared vision and are devoted to its success. Leaders are crystal clear in their communication that improves productivity, builds trust, and ensures that the job is done right.

Effective communication is about planning as much as delivering; listening as much as speaking; personal moments as much as addressing the room.

To ensure your vision is broadly understood within the team, you should constantly repeat the team’s top objectives. Hold an All-Hands meeting every week to share and reinforce priorities, decisions and team’s goals. Encourage open dialogue and listen to the questions and concerns of your team. Ensure that everybody understands what you understand. Ensure that everybody has context for why you’re doing X, Y, and Z. When you set these very specific objective metrics for what you’re trying to do this quarter and this year, teams can look at those and see very clearly what you are trying to accomplish.

3. Innovation: Challenging the Status Quo

Status quo is the enemy of leadership.

Leadership is nonexistence if not understanding the need for change and that’s why most effective leader challenges the status quo. Leaders apply innovative ways to advance the organization. They challenge their own and others’ assumptions and encourage divergent points of view. Leaders take intelligent and ‘calculated’ risks for the greater good, and they push the boundaries, and they break with the past.

As a leader, always be restless for change, impatient for progress and dissatisfied with the status quo, never be content with the present, because you can see a better future, and the friction between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ should burn you, stir you up and propels you forward. As a leader, you are required to innovate and show the team how this is executed, or the organization will slip into stagnation and complacency. Train your brain to innovate!

4. Culture: Cultivating Candor, Humility, Empowerment and Collaboration

The most crucial trait of a leader is getting people to be their absolute best and perform their best by shaping a positive culture. Leaders create a culture of candor, humility, empowerment, and collaboration.

Candor — Leaders create norms and structure that lead to a culture of openness and candor. Leaders of high-performance teams encourage members to voice their views and ideas. They encourage, and even reward, openness and dissent. These leaders believed that the best and most innovative ideas bubble up from every level. They seek to create a culture that uncorks good ideas from every level of the organization. Leaders focus on candid feedback: giving it, receiving it, and encouraging it. It means providing direct honest and at times even sometimes blunt, feedback; soliciting constructive feedback, encouraging your whole team to be candid and providing transparency in decisions.

If the vertical axis is caring personally and the horizontal axis is communication: crystal clear on one side of X axis and unclear on another side of the x-axis. You want your feedback in the upper right-hand quadrant. That’s where candor lies. You care about your people but keep the conversation and feedback to be clear as much as possible irrespective of caring too much about if the person is upset or not. Team members felt they could always count on straight answers from their leader. The point is having a clear understanding of exactly what the decision is made and why it was made. The trust will build when you are clear in communication. They may still disagree with you, but having that context makes it much easier for them to comprehend. As a leader, you need to care about your team while not worrying about what they perceive about you. Leading by trying to be liked is the path to wreck. Don’t apologize for making a tough decision, be confident and definite when dictating what must be done. A great rule of thumb should be “Empathize, do not sympathize.”

Humility — Leaders encourage a culture of humility and constant learning. Your end goal is what a team can do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. And it is not merely humility in creating a territory for others to contribute; it’s “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn from criticism and admitting mistakes. Leaders insist that their organizations develop a clear understanding of what happened — not of “who did it” — when things go wrong.

If work is learning and learning is work, then leadership is all about enabling learning.

Empowerment — Leaders cultivate a culture of empowerment. They know when to get out of the way, and empower team members to self-organize and make their day-to-day decisions. Leaders give team space to tackle problems themselves, but always available to offer advice. A leader understands that clarity is the key to empowerment and ensure that everyone on the team is clear about what they are expected to contribute and what everyone else is contributing.

Collaboration — Leaders encourage and enable a culture of workload sharing and collaboration — lending perspective, experience, and expertise that improve the quality and execution of ideas.

Leaders foster collaboration by building trust, competence, and accessibility.

The team knows that their leader and peers would cover their backs and not throw them under the bus if something went wrong. Everyone’s task is improved by a dynamic process of seeking and giving feedback, ideas, and assistance.

5. People: Hiring, Developing, and Firing smartly

Leadership is about the people. Leadership is caring about the team, and leading them to a better place — even if it means you take a back seat. A checklist for any leader is whether or not those they lead are better off for being led by them. Leaders hire, develop and fire smartly to have stars in every position. If you can’t acquire talent, can’t develop talent, or can’t retain talent, then you are not a leader.

Hire selectively — Leaders are extremely selective in who they hire and set the bar high in the hiring process.

Leadership presents as a talent magnet — not a talent repellent.

You should block certain hours of the day strategizing, acquiring and developing talent. Determine the hard and soft skills that are the most valuable for your organization. Have the discipline to hold out for the perfect hire — no matter how many résumés you have to read, or interviews you have to conduct, or talent searches you have to make. The result is a team full of all-star performers whose collective efforts add up to more than the sum of their parts

Develop People — The most important aspect of a leader’s role is developing and coaching their team members and helping them grow into a next generation leader. Leaders recognize team’s contribution by showing appreciation and encouraging a culture of celebration and a sense of community. Leaders have a regular 1–1 meeting with their team every week, helping them with career development and motivating them through training. If you want to inspire your team, campaign for them, support their training, promotion, and their significant projects.

Effective leaders are compassionate’ rather than ‘empathetic.’

The leader’s task is to understand things from another person’s perspective and use that strength to improve the situation. A leader builds a sound basis for connection. Get to know your employees as people, with lives outside of work.

Fire humanely — Leaders are extremely selective in who they hire but people who’re not a cultural fit or are underperforming, leaders don’t postpone hard conversations and fire humanely- it’s the only way to retain your best employees. It isn’t fair to keep one person — but make the whole team frustrated as a result. You should constantly be doing, one-year, optimistic projection. You should start by projecting one year into the future. What do you want to be doing in a year that you aren’t doing now? When you think about the skills and talents you’ll need to reach these goals, it’s likely that “you’ll see the delta,” In other words, you’ll see the people who don’t have what it takes to get your destination. You have to look at the kind of skills and experience it would take for someone to accomplish what you set out to do, and compare that to who you’ve got. You’ll see that Delta person who hasn’t caught up in the last one year and is unlikely to accelerate in the next year.

6. Results: Accountability and Speed

Leadership is results oriented. Leadership is not only developing and communicating a vision and caring about people but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the highest-value work. Leaders execute, they get the job done, and they consistently exceed expectations.

No results = no leadership — it’s just that simple.

Leadership isn’t about your big talk; it’s about your actions. Leader earns the right and the respect to lead by being present, through direct individual involvement and action. Leaders focus on helping the team achieve its goals by prioritizing work and removing obstacles.

Accountability — Leaders do everything to create an atmosphere of accountability. Leaders define and clarify roles, goals, and expectations. Make sure you understand what various team is working on, understand who the great individual contributor are on the team. Spend time with individual teams to figure out what’s preventing them from moving faster or getting things done and helping remove roadblocks. By checking in with people frequently to reward small wins and help the team prioritize work, and make decisions to remove obstacles, leader bolsters the team’s motivation and focus and enable them to make more meaningful progress. Set milestones and metrics and find a balance between process and results. Leaders roll up sleeves and work side-by-side with team when needed.

Speed — Leaders focus on speed and quality in decision-making. The truly difficult part of leading a team is making hard calls and knowing that certain decisions cannot be unwound but must be made, and will have no way of knowing whether it’s the right call or not.

However, the worst decision is indecision.

Allowing unresolved, however difficult, signals a lack of leadership first and foremost. And nothing makes people run for the exits quicker than the realization that the person leading them is paralyzed by indecision. Make great decisions fast.

You need to constantly begin every decision-making process by considering how much time and effort that option is worth. Some decisions deserve days of analysis and discussion, but a majority aren’t worth more than 15 minutes. And, as you’re making these decisions, always ask yourself this question: “Why can’t this be done sooner?” Asking it methodically and habitually can have a profound impact on the speed of your organization. When a decision is made is more crucial than what decision is made.

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Which of these traits are most important to you in a leader — I look forward to your thoughts below Ali Akbar