By Marcel Schwantes
Do you have a natural bent for people and relationships? That’s a good starting point.
Ever wonder if you’re true leadership material? Perhaps you’ve been told you are, but the question is, by what standard? Thousands of leadership books are written each year, many of them with marketing agendas to rehash and repackage what has been talked about for decades.
What is true about leadership that will remain unchanged through the centuries is this: It’s about people and relationships. And that requires that leaders have a natural bent for both. If you’re not into either, you’re not a leader.
And you can start with the proven fact that great leaders aspire to lead by serving the needs of their people. You don’t need flavor-of-the-month books and expensive formal training to learn this concept.
But you do need to develop and measure yourself against the standards of great leadership (<which I strongly propose to be servant leadership). Here are four top leadership characteristics I have witnessed that float to the top. Do any describe you?
1. You have an innate desire to make people better at what they do.
A core element of intrinsic motivation, as described in Daniel Pink’s classic bestseller Drive, is being able to develop mastery in one’s work. Obviously, this requires hiring people with the ambition and drive to learn and grow.
Once that is in place, a sign of leadership greatness is creating a learning organization that relies upon the knowledge of individual contributors, rather than the classical hierarchical organization, which relies on the knowledge of the top of the hierarchy.
Leaders who are looking ahead to develop the skills, competencies, and leadership of others have a distinct advantage. As they create the framework for people to develop and progress in mastery, the intrinsic motivation that Daniel Pink writes about is unleashed.
Robert Greenleaf, the founder of the modern servant leadership movement, writes in his classic book Servant Leadership: “When the business manager who is fully committed to this ethic is asked, ‘What are you in business for?’ the answer may be: ‘I am in the business of growing people — people who are stronger, healthier, more autonomous, more self-reliant, more competent. Incidentally, we also make and sell at a profit things that people want to buy so we can pay for all this.'”
2. Your highest leadership priority is to develop trust.
Nowadays, leaders can’t rely on positional authority alone to get things done. Work environments are now flatter, decentralized, dispersed, and virtual. And yet, more than ever, they are faced with business challenges that call for higher levels of innovation, knowledge, and soft skills.
How can leaders ensure that a team is staying cohesive, collaborating at a high level, and headed in the same direction to develop great product and keep customers happy?
The secret is trust. And the foundation for trust is integrity.
When leaders operate from integrity, they gain the trust and respect of their people. Leaders are seen as dependable and accountable for their actions. People feel psychologically safe in their presence, which increases their influence.
SAS Institute, voted one of Fortune magazine’s Best Companies to Work For twenty-one years in a row, didn’t arrive there by accident. It’s industry-low turnover is merely 2 percent; the pillars of its culture are based on “trust between our employees and the company,” says CEO Jim Goodnight.
3. You rely on your instincts and gift of intuition.
Great leaders can sniff out the signals in the environment and sense what’s going on without having anything spelled out for them. They rely on off-the-charts intuition for timing and the best course of action.
That’s a paraphrase by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones after their extensive research that led to their book Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?
They refer to these inspirational leaders as good “situation sensors.” In essence, these leaders are keen on collecting and interpreting soft data, detecting shifts in climate and ambiance, and reading the silences and nonverbal cues of others.
The authors found these sensors have the capacity to accurately judge whether relationships are working — a gift of intuition not many have.
4. Your whole reason for working and doing business is to change lives.
Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Group, said, “There’s no point in starting a business unless you’re going to make a dramatic difference to other people’s lives. So if you’ve got an idea that’s gonna make a big difference to other people’s lives, then just get on and do it.”
Even if you’re not an entrepreneur with a big dream, and find yourself navigating the political corporate landscape, great leaders instinctively know how to reinforce the mission of their organizations and make it jump out of posters and plaques on lobby walls.
They use their company mission to engage and energize workers; they structure and craft their jobs in a way that allows them to tap into this energy; and they find ways to inject more purpose and meaning into people’s work that is aligned with the mission.
Branson also says, “With you and your employees approaching your work with renewed energy and commitment, you’ll find that there’s little that you can’t accomplish together.”
Now I ask you, the leader: Could any of your team members accurately describe your mission? When was the last time you had an authentic conversation about how their work aligns with the company mission?
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