Every couple of years or so, I enjoy presenting a compelling list of leadership traits for reader-evaluation. While there is no perfect list of great leadership traits—and I could never fit a complete inventory into the confines of this column even if there were—the following ten-point portrait of a top-notch leader should prove as a useful starting place to accomplish two purposes:
1. Establish a benchmark to evaluate your own leadership style, disciplines and effectiveness so you can continually work to improve each trait. After all, your ability to grow your team will be in direct proportion to your personal growth in these areas.
2. Use as a benchmark to evaluate, train, coach and focus your leadership team.
Here are the ten-point portraits of a top-notch leader:
1. Admit mistakes. This trait creates openness, bonds and builds trust with your team. Your personal example in executing this skill also teaches your team to do likewise. As a bonus, when you can teach others from mistakes you make you greatly increase the positive impact you have on them.
2. Give away credit. In an age of “look at me!” this unselfish and honest act is both a rare and valuable trait. It can also trigger a chain reaction throughout the ranks as other team members become better team players and less infected with the “disease of me.”
3. Continue to grow personally. You may have noticed that the previous two traits listed set a productive pace and example for the team. Working to learn more and upgrade your skills through personal growth does the same. Frankly, some leaders are limited in how far they can take followers because somewhere along the line they become arrogant know-it-alls, parading a “been there, done that” attitude and eventually plateauing as they run out of ideas and lose their relevance. A top-notch leader knows he cannot take his team on journeys he hasn’t been on, nor can he export to them what he doesn’t have. Becoming a lifelong learner positions you as a leader that lasts over the long term.
4. Train, coach, mentor. Embracing the prior trait of personal growth equips you to perform this skill far more effectively. To excel as a leader, you must be three for three here: you must train and coach everyone; mentor the few—those with the highest upward potential. Top-notch leaders make time for these people-development disciplines; they don’t make excuses for why they don’t have the time to do them.
5. Set clear expectations. These include both performance standards (the numbers) and core values (the behaviors). Once clear expectations are set the top-notch leader is better-equipped to eliminate gray areas with fast, honest, feedback. Clear expectations also create an unmatched benchmark for holding people accountable; a non-negotiable trait for any high-performance culture.
6. Care enough to confront and hold others accountable. Speaking of accountability, a top-notch leader confronts non-performance quickly, respectfully and firmly; he knows he cannot be persuasive when he’s abrasive. He also understands that submitting to the discomfort of confronting a performance shortfall is humane rather than harsh; harsh would be ignoring the performance and allowing the employee to eventually fail on his leadership watch.
7. Lead from the front. A top-notch leader spends more time with people-work than paperwork and never substitutes rules for relationships. He or she comes to work each day to act as a catalyst and to make something happen; not to wait for something to happen or be content to watch it happen. They fully realize that their speed will determine their team’s speed.
8. Change before you have to. Because a top-notch leader leads from the front, he sees firsthand the reality of what’s going on in his business and makes personal, team, and organizational changes before the bottom falls out. Contrast this to the “administrator” leader who spends more time polishing a chair with his rear end than leading; he is often caught by surprise and panics and reacts to what arises, rather than preventing it in the first place.
9. Keep commitments. A top-notch leader builds his character and inspires the team by doing what he says he’ll do; without excuses and regardless of the cost. He understands that when his talk and walk match he earns the buy-in that compels team members to do more than is required because they respect and believe in their boss.
10. Diligently build and protect culture. The top-notch leader knows he cannot measurably or sustainably improve behaviors with threats, contests, spiffs or other gimmicks. Rather, he must improve behaviors in order to improve the culture. As the primary influencer and chief architect of his culture, a top-notch leader takes the role of building, reinforcing, and protecting his culture very seriously. As he or she lives out the ten traits listed in this piece success in that endeavor is ensured.
Obviously, no leader can expect to be perfect in all ten areas at any one time, but we can all improve each of these skills when we’re humble enough to face our shortcomings and disciplined enough to raise our standard and act on the opportunity to become better. What’s really exciting is that even small increases in ability, across the spectrum of these ten traits, can lead to explosive elevations in productivity over time.