To be inspired? To be challenged? To be coached? Or all of the above? I was having breakfast recently with the CEO of one of the world’s finest retailers and we were discussing what makes a great leader. We meet regularly to talk about what’s happening at the intersection of business, life and the world at large. He’s one of the most critical thinking, effective leaders I’ve had the pleasure of working with and learning from. Our breakfast started with an intense conversation around a range of subjects, but we jumped right into a spirited discussion about our options for the next leader of this great nation. We talked at length about the shortage of effective and inspiring leaders ready to step up and run our country. Great leaders inspire, and by their very presence create confidence and the belief that anything is possible—no matter the prevailing conditions. We agreed that whether you lead a nation, a company, a sports team or any other group of people, the qualities, characteristics and skills required to lead effectively are very similar. As you look at where you are on the ladder of leadership—at the top, in the middle or just putting one foot on the rungs—here’s a look at the basic skills required to live the definition of a leader.
A leader inspires belief
Great leaders cast a compelling vision for the change they expect to see in the world and for the future. They lay out a clear purpose for the organization and then set the context for the business with a clear and compelling strategy. Great leaders help to nurture the individual and institutional belief that anything is possible, and they effectively harness the collective capability and skills of the group to achieve results. Look at Tesla founder Elon Musk. While he has led the impressive rise of Tesla Motors, his true focus is to reduce global warming through sustainable energy production. You only have to look at his commitment to his Nevada Gigafactory to understand how serious he is about realizing his vision.
A leader challenges people to think
Leaders must be able to inspire, challenge and engage people to believe that they can achieve their potential. They are great listeners who don’t feel like they need to have all of the answers, or have all of the plays figured out. They know how to ask the right questions and when to challenge their teams to think through solutions to the answers. Howard Schultz, the infamous founder and CEO of Starbucks, is at the helm of the now multi-billion-dollar giant, keeping it real. Celebrated and respected as a visionary, he is admired for his ability to see around corners and has a knack for asking the right questions at the right times and challenging his leadership team to do the same.
A leader builds trust
Fear, caution and self-preservation are just a few of the symptoms of organizational dysfunction that fester and slowly undermine the full potential of an organization when trust is absent. Respect, honesty and accountability are the positive ingredients for building a culture of trust. Leaders must operate with the highest degree of integrity, authenticity and consistency to model behaviors that inspire and guide their teams. This only happens when their actions and decisions are guided by a clear set of actionable values that the entire organization operates within. Jeffery Sears, co-founder and CEO of PIRCH, is a rare and exceptional leader. Laser focused, he cares about every detail of his business. He ensures that his entire organization lives its purpose by ensuring that each team member is immersed in the company culture and its story through the company’s University of Joy where they experience the brand’s living values through their manifesto.
A leader holds you accountable
Purpose affirms trust, trust affirms purpose, and together they forge individuals into a working team, according to General Stanley McChrystal, best known for his command of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the mid-2000s. Great leaders believe in the value of every individual on the team, understanding what motivates each and guiding them to be their individual best. A leader understands the challenge of competition and knows that winning is paramount. The key to a team operating at maximum levels is accountability for the mission and collaboratively working to exceed expectations. According to McChrystal, “The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an ‘Eyes-On, Hands-Off’ enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.”
A leader is in service
Great leaders are part coach, part communicator, part motivator and always in service of the team they lead. It’s never about them, but rather about the people they serve. Great leaders are empathetic and highly in tune with the needs of their teams and the environments in which they are operating. They work in service of their team to solve problems, provide the needed resources and the environment where their people can thrive and do their best work. Great leaders demonstrate a genuine concern for the people in their care, (employees, consumers and shareholders) while instilling a sense that anything is possible for both the individual and the broader enterprise they lead. For Neil Grimmer, founder and CEO of Plum Organics, business is always personal. He believes that every company is founded on principles that ladder back to a personal experience—one that makes a connection with, and keeps, employees engaged. He stresses the importance of having a heart and that it’s important to nourish relationships by encouraging and supporting employees to bring the company’s mission to the world.
Companies, like countries, require and should expect nothing less than exceptional from their leaders. It’s a position of extreme responsibility where people’s lives are at stake each and every day. To lead is both a responsibility and a privilege that must be taken seriously. If you’re missing one of the above skills, you should be a leader in training.