Digital Centership | On Being Effective Leaders
What does it mean to be an effective leader? Certainly we all want our leadership to make a real impact, to affect change where we see a need, and to motivate and inspire others to join us in fulfilling our vision – whether it’s a business innovation, social reformation or political revolution.
The thousands of examples of great leaders throughout history have showed us that there is no ‘one right way’ to be a leader. Great leaders come in all shapes and sizes and temperaments. A leader can be soft-spoken, or ‘loud and proud’. They can use humor liberally, or be sober and serious. A leader can be introverted or extroverted; spontaneous or methodical; studious or action-oriented.
Jeff Bezos, Malala Yousafzai, Oprah Winfrey, Pope Francis, Neil DeGrasse-Tyson & William Buffett are all very examples of contemporary leaders, and yet among them are many substantial differences – not just in their life’s work, but in the way they comport themselves, temperament, appearance and vision. There are as many ‘ways’ to be a leader as there are people who are willing to lead.
If you’ve been in a leadership position for long enough, you have no doubt read one of the hundreds of popular books on leadership that are currently on the market. Every few years a new leadership ‘philosophy’ comes into vogue and every executive or community organizer rushes to buy the book and discuss it with their colleagues, eager to find new methods for bringing more efficacy and power to their platform. You may have also gone through a course on leadership, either in the form of a class or a specialized training course, most likely based some new ‘leadership concept’ that promises to make you a better, more enlightened leader.
Personally, I enjoy these kinds of books and courses. I think they are always fun and they genuinely help me to look at leadership from different angles; and engaging with other leaders around the subject matter is instructive and invigorating.
That said, I think there are some universal traits that make a good leader regardless of individual personality or temperament. These traits are almost always included into any leadership training/reading. There are millions of great contemporary and historical leaders who have never read a book or taken a class on leadership, but most of them still had these traits. The Universal Qualities of Great Leadership are pretty much found in every leadership concept book or training, and I call these and they are as valuable online as they are offline.
Universal Qualities of Great Leadership
Having faith doesn’t necessarily mean being religious, or even spiritual – although there are many great leaders who are both of these things. But faith can also be defined as ‘a strong conviction or belief in something, even when there is no proof.’
Faith is the ability to believe that something is possible, even when it’s not currently the reality. For example, leaders who have been fighting for racial or gender equality for decades could not have continued on their path if they didn’t have faith that change was possible even in the face of (often violent) pushback and discouragement.
Faith that what you are doing can and will make a difference is the essential foundation for any leadership platform. It’s the foundation of leadership that will carry both the leader and their followers forward even when all evidence that they can make a difference points to the contrary.
A good leader recognizes that they have a responsibility to wisely use the time, money and energy that they and others have invested in their cause. Practically, that means they need to think strategically about how to best use these resources.
Strategy requires planning, and can be tedious. Not all leaders have the skills required to plot out a methodical strategic plan, and in those cases, they must rely on others who can help them figure out proceed without wasting their precious resources. But this is part of the responsibility that comes with the privilege of leadership.
Committing to a strategy can also be scary. After all strategy requires taking into account the possibility (and in fact, multiple possibilities) of failure. However, people will only follow you so far without a visible plan that you can be accountable for.
The good news is that strategies aren’t set in stone; they can be changed and evolve over time. Keeping your strategy transparent to your stakeholders, and keeping yourself proactively accountable for updating them on changes is essential to getting buy-in from people whose support you need.
“The very essence of leadership is [that] you have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”
— Theodore Hesburgh
Vision is essential for leaders because it is what keeps them focused. Many great performers and athletes will tell you that before they go out on stage or onto the field they will spend time envision themselves executing their skills perfectly. They’ll also envision the roar of the crowd or the audience’s applause. It is clear in their minds exactly what they must do and what the outcome will be before they even begin.
A good leader can ‘see’ their goal clearly, and has the ability to share it with others in a way that inspires and motivates them. It’s a powerful tool for strengthening resolve and keeping people engaged even when the going gets tough. It can’t be overstated that the greatest obstacle to change is not opposition, but apathy.
Leaders are open to feedback, able to listen to criticism, and able to take into account the needs and wishes of the people they are leading. This means that leaders must make themselves accessible, and even seek out feedback from a wide range of people so that they can get fresh perspectives to help them in their strategy.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a national fellowship with several other community leaders; and one of the first activities we did was to read through anonymous feedback about our leadership abilities that had been submitted from friends and co-workers. It was the first time many of us had received this kind of detailed feedback, and the anonymity of it ensured that it was honest even from our closest friends.
Much of the feedback was positive, but much of it was also constructively critical – and there were many in my group that struggled to resolve themselves to what they had read. We spent a great deal of time as a group discussing the discomfort we felt reading some of the critical comments that had been made about us at our request. In the end, our group agreed that it was incredibly valuable to know where our leadership was lacking – because all of us were there to become better leaders, not to just feel good about ourselves.
The reality is that good leaders are willing to hear criticism and actually find ways to seek it out. When we find someone who is willing to give us honest feedback, we must value those people even though we feel our egos rising up and pushing back.
Being receptive isn’t just about listening to feedback from our followers, either.
Receptivity means that leaders aren’t so in love with their own methods that they miss opportunities, or fail to change course when things around them are rapidly changing. Being receptive is about sensitivity to what is going on ‘out there’ and keeping our egos from letting us think we’ve got it all figured out.
Leaders are willing to share their thoughts and ideas with their teams; and constantly look for ways to improve their messaging to reach both the people who are following them, and those who may be on the fence.
Communication is part of accountability. It means you recognize there is a team of people depending on you, and in need of your direction and engagement to keep them on course. Regular communication keeps you from isolating yourself and dictating the direction you want others to go. It means reaching people where they are, and understanding how to talk to them in a way that they will be most receptive to your message.
Communication demonstrates that you recognize that your actions affect the whole team, and you feel it’s important that they understand the reasons for leadership decisions, and that you’re willing to hear their input about your decisions, too.
It’s a sign of respect and trust for the people your work with to be able to communicate with openness, transparency and humility.
Too often love gets relegated to sentimental displays of romance, or cheesy films and novels that turn it into just another method to sell flowers and diamonds.
But love is so much more than that.
Love is the single greatest creative force in the universe. It’s the thing that causes us to rise above our animal instincts and sacrifice for others; to seek out ways to help people who can never repay us; and to do things because they are good and right and beautiful—not just profitable.
Good leaders love. They love their causes, their people, and their work. It is the essential element to a good leader, and manifests in both deed and word. A leader who loves thinks about the good of the many, not the few. They view themselves as part of a whole, and recognizes the essential role everyone in their organization plays; and they are generous with kindness and appreciation for others they work with.
Leadership is often uncomfortable. Leaders must take responsibility for their actions and be the first to stand up to opposition. Leaders must have courage to step out of line, especially when their cause or business is disruptive or goes against the status quo. Even though there’s a whole team at work, part of leadership is knowing that as a leader, you play a special role and must be held to a higher standard of accountability.
Having courage means not hiding behind blame. It means doing what is right even when it is hard. It means leading from behind when necessary, and being in the trenches with your people when the going gets tough.
Actions speak louder than words, always. Everything a leader says must have a real world, active application that can be demonstrated and quantified in some way. Simply raising awareness about a problem isn’t enough. If you want someone to follow you, you must be actively engaged in finding solutions to that problem.
The most powerful leaders are those who are engaged in work that impacts the lives of people in their own communities. There are millions of smart people who are out there talking about ‘solutions’ – presenting every manner of theory and hypothesis about how to make the world a better place. None of this has any value in the face of real world, quantifiable impact.
Leaders are those who engage in constant self-evaluation, and can recognize their own mistakes or missteps. Leaders also realize they aren’t the end-all, be-all of knowledge and wisdom and are open to guidance and help from trusted sources. Humility allows leaders to be accountable. It also allows them to take guidance and make changes to their strategy when it’s necessary.
Humility helps leaders avoid buying into their own hype, and keeps their egos in check so that they are focused on their mission, not on their own aggrandizement.
Finally, humility allows leaders to remain approachable, accessible to their followers – and this is essential for making sure the whole organization remains inspired and enthusiastic.
Leaders lead by example in every aspect of their lives. One doesn’t go home and stop being a leader at the end of the day. There isn’t a ‘vacation’ from leadership. The personal and profession actions of a leader are in agreement – they live and breathe their vision at all times.
Furthermore, great leaders don’t ask their people to do anything that they aren’t willing to do themselves. They must be willing to lead ‘on the ground’ and demonstrate what excellence in action looks like as an example.
The top killer of trust is hypocrisy, and a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude will destroy your leadership faster than anything else. Do you want your team to cut costs? Then don’t take first class flights, and charge hundreds of dollars on dinners that get charged to the company. Do you want your team to go door-to-door and canvass the city to ask people to vote for you? Then you need to spend some time doing that same work yourself, rather than just sitting in an air-conditioned office and reading email updates from the field.
Leader, Know Thyself
Good leaders don’t labor under fantasies about themselves. To be effective in any role, we have to be honest with ourselves about our abilities and limitations. We must be willing to look at ourselves critically, and understand where we need to make adjustments or build alliances that can augment our deficiencies.
But even more importantly, a leader must be relatable and accessible to the people they want to lead. Many leaders make the mistake of trying to construct a perfect veneer, highlighting only their good qualities, ignoring or covering up their flaws and detaching themselves from mistakes or past challenges.
There is really nothing more compelling than a leader who understands their own narrative and can convey their challenges and victories in a way that motivates and inspires. Everyone has made mistakes. A leader is someone who can show how they overcome difficulties or met challenges.
One of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in the past five years was an opportunity to participating a training workshop with Harvard professor and social justice pioneer Marshall Ganz. Ganz is also credited with developing the grassroots organizing model and training for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential race, which relied heavily on the development of the personal narratives of individual leaders and organizers as a way to motivate people to support the campaign.
Through the training I learned that building trust with those who you want to lead requires that you be willing to trust others first. You can demonstrate that trust by sharing your own story, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and admitting past mistakes or challenges that taught you lessons. For the first time in my life, I began to look at my ‘deficiencies’ as ‘assets’ – I realized that the challenges I’ve faced actually make me a better leader, because they make me relatable.
Each and every leader must not only know themselves and their limitations, but be willing to articulate their story to others in a way that is inspiring. Sharing challenges that we’ve overcome also allows us to demonstrate our determination, self-discipline and passion.
What are the qualities that you possess that make you an effective leader?
What are your challenges to effective leadership?