10 Critical Leadership Traits
To improve productivity and speed up delivery
In this story, based on my practical experience as a leader over three decades and methodical studies on leadership, I want to introduce ten critical points for competent leaders to consider and apply to any aspect of their lives. The purpose is to be productive and getting things done on time.
Point 1: Leaders must have a vision.
We develop our ideas for future events and outcomes which establish our vision. Leadership in any area requires having a vision. More importantly, articulating the vision and influencing the followers for a specific vision are the essential traits of technical leaders. Vision is a metaphorical term referring to our mental picture of the future.
It is the vision which attracts the people towards their leaders. Team members need to have confidence in their leaders’ vision to reach common goals. Leaders’ vision inspires the followers to work for them more efficiently and support them wholeheartedly. It is the meaning added by the magic of vision set by the leaders. We need “visionary leaders” for creative and innovative endeavours. Competent leaders are known for their visionary traits.
Leadership vision needs to display the values, beliefs, and culture of the organisation. Leaders’ vision brings team members together; hence, they work for the same goals. Without a well-communicated and clearly understood vision, people get lost in complicated process and procedures. Vision sharpens the team members’ focus and empowers them to work in the same direction.
Point 2: Focus on excellence rather not perfection.
Excellence may mean different things to different people. Excellence in this article’s scope refers to having or demonstrating outstanding quality for the leaders for making a noticeable impact on other people, especially on the followers of these leaders. The outstanding quality comprises the leader’s knowledge, skills, experience, expertise, and personality traits.
There may be a potential misconception that excellence means perfection. It does not. We need to clarify that excellence and perfection are not the same things. Perfection ironically can be a deterrent to excellence. Those who aim for perfection, as a side effect, can face procrastination and unnecessary effort to achieve so-called perfection, which is usually not realistic.
Perfection is difficult to attain, almost impossible human endeavour. The cost of perfection is prohibitive and undesirable. There is even a term coined in the corporate world called “gold-plating”. This term refers to perfection efforts, which results in no financial gains.
Even though some may pursue of perfection in their endeavour, it is not possible to reach consensus for an understanding of perfection. Since we are individuals and all have different filters in our minds, we see perfection differently. For example, an outcome which may be classified as perfect for one person may not necessarily be considered as perfect by another. Different value judgements may have different implications for recognition of perfection.
Point 3: Leaders need to tolerate uncertainty.
Tolerance to uncertainty and ambiguity is a well understood and accepted leadership attribute. Leaders deal with future outcomes. They make the future. However, the future is unknown to us as humans, as outcomes are affected by a myriad of causes beyond the control of people. Therefore, uncertainty is a reality to deal with future events.
Uncertainty is a closely related term to risk management. Taking risk is one of the necessities and most fundamental characteristics of leaders for success. As mentioned in my previous articles, risk and opportunity are like inseparable yin and yang. We can even simplify at the most basic level that no risk, no opportunity. Leaders know that opportunities are created by taking risks. They take calculated risks using their logic and intuition and mitigate them to be able to deal with uncertainty in a systematic way. They learn from past failures and use these learnings to mitigate risks.
Dealing with uncertainties and ambiguities creates new options and choices leading to innovation. Having more options to choose and linking those options in a creative, intelligent, and the integrated way can create new transformational solutions. To this end, the transformational goals, that excellent leaders strive, require tolerance to uncertainty and ambiguity. They take calculated risks to create opportunities leading to desired digital transformation outcomes.
Point 4: Emotional intelligence is critical for leaders.
Dealing with people and leading teams require robust emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EQ) requires awareness and management of one’s own emotions and understanding others’ emotions too. Those leaders with high EQ can handle interpersonal relationships more effectively and with empathy.
Empathy and compassion for others have a magical impact on the leaders and their followers. This natural human need is genuine and experienced in all social settings. We can communicate better by using empathy for the others whether they are our peers, superiors or subordinates. Consideration of other’s unique circumstances with empathy can open the communication channels for leaders.
Emotional intelligence also makes the leaders more self-aware with their fluctuating moods, changing emotions, and drives. This self-awareness makes a tremendous difference when dealing with people. Once they are aware of their moods and emotions, they can take appropriate actions for their communication and interactions with others. Self-awareness also helps with self-regulation. They can make better decisions by delaying their gratifying urges for immediate responses, which may not necessarily serve to their best interest at the times when they are experiencing low moods and debilitating negative emotions.
Emotionally intelligent leaders behave authentically. Their behaviour reflects their authentic self in their communication and interactions with others. They align with their principles based on authenticity. This authentic behaviour is noticeable and welcomed by others. Authentic leaders do not fear to show their vulnerabilities. Paradoxically, showing their human vulnerabilities to others, empowers them, make them more confident, more balanced, and even makes them stronger leaders. I observed these types of leaders in my engagements and their vulnerability made them more credible in my eyes.
Point 5: Leaders must take personal responsibility.
Taking personal responsibility in all walks of life is a virtue for all humans. This foundational human attribute is a particular empowering capability for the technical leaders. Taking personal responsibility and being accountable for the situations we create; we can leave better impressions on other people. This positive disposition creates a trust for our integrity.
As opposed to taking responsibility, complaining about situations and blaming others and circumstances for undesirable outcomes create a negative atmosphere in workplaces. Blame removes the power and replaces it with weakness. Blame, whatever the circumstances are, creates an undesirable situation in the workplace as no one enjoys taking the blame even if they are on the wrong side of the fence.
Competent leaders are aware of the implications of blaming and complaining; hence, they always take personal responsibility for their actions, emotions and results they produce. These leaders also encourage everyone in their teams to do so.
Point 6: Leaders can thrive only with constant and habitual actions.
Knowledge and skills without action do not produce any desired outcome in the workplace. Competent leaders are aware of this well-known fact; consequently, they are action-oriented. Excellent leaders prioritise their tasks and act immediately based on their priorities. They don’t like delaying necessary actions. They dislike procrastination unless something in their list is shallow value, low priority, have other dependencies, and have an extended time to complete.
Actions are taken using practical tools and processes in the workplace. Using a quick phone call rather than writing a long email can be more effective in acting for a priority matter. Sometimes making multiple phone calls with different stakeholders, bringing them in the same room with a clear agenda for a short time can help resolution of complicated matters much more effectively. These practical action-oriented techniques are well known and used by these leaders.
Sometimes acting for complicated matters can be a daunting task for the team members. These technical leaders can help the team members to deconstruct the enormous tasks to smaller components and deal with each piece in priority order. Besides, excellent leaders check the progress actively, encourage people to keep going with their actions, and they do regular follow-ups to ensure they succeed at all times. Competent leaders are not only action-oriented by themselves, but they also enable others to become action-oriented by facilitating the activities, making the approach easier, clearing the hurdles, and providing a clear vision.
Point 7: Prioritise based on the importance and urgency.
Priority management, as opposed to time management, is a well-understood necessity for leaders. Competent leaders manage their priorities rather than their time. Priority management is focusing on essential tasks which make a real difference for desired outcomes. Focusing on things that matter, avoiding distractions, removing roadblocks, creating enablers are fundamental characteristics of leaders to set the prioritisation for the digital transformation.
Excellent leaders don’t complain about too much to do in too little time as they primarily focus on their priorities. Setting priorities, switching priorities and shuffling between priorities are the primary focus of their day to day work engagements for themselves and their followers. They ask whether something is essential to do now, or can it wait. They take immediate actions to resolve an issue, to create a plan, to help a team member. By using this systematic action-oriented approach, nothing important accumulates; hence, they prevent any time management concerns.
Another essential technique they use to manage their priorities is to be able to delegate necessary actions to the right people in smart ways. The smart delegation not only allows them to free their times for other more critical duties but also it empowers the talented team members to engage and grow by undertaking additional duties and tasks.
Point 8: Leaders aim to reach consensus.
The consensus is an arrangement bringing all parties to an agreement for discussion of a topic, a matter, or a problem to be solved. Consensus brings all parties on the same page and creates a win-win situation for all stakeholders. Excellent leaders are aware of this essential social necessity to create social productivity at work.
Reaching consensus for a large group of people requires exceptional communication skills, respect to other’s viewpoints, meaningful negotiations, pointing out blind spots respectfully, using precise definitions, articulation of details even more structurally and methodically, and providing logical representations of situations.
Compotent leaders employ various techniques to reach consensus. They can clarify rules of engagement for all parties, operating models in the organisation or departments, and underlying processes and procedures. Using these simple yet essential techniques when needed, can help the team members to reach consensus effectively on any circumstance and situation.
Point 9: Leaders must learn quickly.
Learning is a lifelong process. Competent leaders are self-learners in formal and informal settings. They already gained discipline from years of formal learning from schools and other formal learning environments. They also interact with people regularly and participate in informal learning activities.
Every situation creates a learning opportunity for these leaders. Excellent leaders learn new situations quickly in the right context. They adjust themselves to the situations based on their capability to learn quickly, respond intelligently, and follow up efficiently.
In addition to learning, these compotent leaders are also great teachers. They pass their messages clearly and enable their followers to learn quickly. They use multiple senses and ways to convey their messages as they know that people have a different style of learning. More specifically, they try multiple senses, such as visual, audio, and tactile.
Point 10: Leaders inspire others to think and change.
Leaders can make followers think and believe in the right direction. They don’t tell them what to do, how to do something, and when to do things, but they inspire them to think productively using various supportive techniques. Active listening and asking probing questions can help others feel more clearly and effectively.
It is a subtle skill to make other people think. It is like the proverbial ‘you can force a horse to a river but cannot make him drink’. This approach requires psychological knowledge and skilful refinement through years of working with people at various levels. Making other people think in the desired direction requires extensive psychological understanding.
As mentioned in earlier sections, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and mindfulness are three of the necessary capabilities to inspire other people to think effectively. Paying attention to people’s current moods, body language, tone of voice, and other clues from their conversations, compotent leaders can steer conversations in healthier and productive ways.
This inspirational skill of excellent leaders can be useful for the team members during the problem-solving, performing complex analysis, making assessments, and critical decisions. Providing them with some clues, asking interesting questions, encouraging their thoughts, showing interest in what they were saying are useful techniques.
These ten points are critical success factors for competent leaders. Being aware of these points and considering them in our leadership initiatives can empower our productivity and enable us to get things done more effectively and efficiently.