EIGHT CHARACTERISTICS OF LEADERSHIP
by Ann Lehman
first wrote about leadership 15 years ago. As time and leaders change, I find it useful to update my thinking about this.
What is leadership? Leadership is an influence process: The ability to motivate others to do something, believe something or act a certain way. Leadership style is the pattern of behaviors you use when you are trying to influence the performance of others. It's about doing "the right thing," through honest conviction and an authentic vision of the future.
Many people in the nonprofit/public interest sector have been thrust into leadership positions without appropriate training or experience. Some come by these traits naturally, but the good news is that everyone can learn. Books, articles, coaches, and models of effective leadership skills trainings are easily accessed on and offline.
Here are eight characteristics Zimmerman Lehman looks for in a leader.
1) VISION - being able to articulate the future in clear simple language: An emphasis on what will be rather than what is. A leader should be able to state concretely what success will look like and how you will get there. Leadership is seeing the wider context and underlining structure of an organization and inspiring others with a vision of what is possible. This is a quality almost all management gurus agree is necessary for a good leader. Leaders come from very diverse backgrounds. Computer scientist Anita Borg "had a unique capacity to mix technical expertise and fearless vision that inspired, motivated and moved women to embrace technology instead of fearing or ignoring it," as the Institute she created put it. Her vision was to have 50% representation for women in computing by 2020, it may not happen but her work helped inspire Google, Facebook, Twitter and other technology companies to release their diversity data for the first time this year.
2) You must be TRUSTWORTHY. Trust is built on honesty. Actions do speak much louder than words. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor – if you have not yet read her autobiography, put it on your list, it is an excruciatingly honest description of her family's struggles, her diabetes and her ambition to be a judge. While she had to deny she would be guided by her personal and subjective experience in the world in order to assure her critics during her Supreme Court nomination hearings that she could follow the law, her book leaves little doubt that these formative experiences have contributed to her beliefs and a value system that will frame her judicial judgments. It also shows that she went out of her way to understand opposing views and regularly worked to build bridges instead of walls. All of this builds trust, and confidence that a leader has integrity, reliability and truthfulness.
3) You must understand what MOTIVATES people, and it will be different for each person. While those of us in the nonprofit world can't lure talent and outstanding effort with high salaries, there are other motivators. Simple but too often ignored motivators include: praise (tell folks they've done a job well), appreciation (a simple "thank you" when appropriate will earn you respect), and recognition (credit for input on a report, awards or a letter of commendation for exceptional service). Learning to give positive feedback is crucial! Teambuilding exercises are a great way to build enthusiasm and cooperation. Sometimes, however, we need to motivate by being clear about the consequences of underperformance or inappropriate behavior.
Michele Obama has motivated many young people with statements such as, "You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world's problems at once, but don't ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own."
4) One popular buzz phrase in the leadership discussion is EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE (EI). Being able to read people (know what they want or need) is invaluable."EI" includes identifying, using, understanding and managing emotions. I like how leadership guru Stephen Covey describes the five primary components of emotional intelligence:
1. Self-Awareness — The ability to reflect on one's own life, grow in self-knowledge, and use that knowledge to improve oneself and either consume or compensate for weaknesses.
2. Personal Motivation — What really excites people — the vision, values, goals, hopes, desires, and passion that make up their priorities
3. Self-Regulation — The ability to manage oneself toward achieving one's vision and values.
4. Empathy — The ability to see how other people see and feel about things.
5. Social Skills — How people resolve differences, solve problems, produce creative solutions, and interact optimally to further their joint purposes.
Research suggests EI is responsible for as much as 80% of the "success" in our lives. It used to be called empathy or intuition; now if you google EI you get over ten million hits (interesting that last time I wrote this it was only a million). If you are not born with this intuition, you can learn it. Reviewing some of these google hits is a start!
5) You must be able to EMPOWER others. Empowerment is a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own live. Eric Holder, US Attorney General, insisted the Justice Department empower the powerless, by fighting for voting rights in Florida, Texas and Wisconsin, and standing with the people in Ferguson Missouri when they were feeling under assault.
In the workplace, empowerment is based on the idea that giving employees skills, resources, authority and opportunity will contribute to their competence and fulfillment. Teach employees how to accomplish a task rather than do it for them (even if you can do it faster or better, it will save you time in the long run). I don't like his sexist language, but Theodore Roosevelt hit on a truth when he said "The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men [women] to do what he [she] wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it." Tell people what you expect from them, give them the tools they need to succeed, and then get out of their way. Learn to listen; nothing is more empowering than being heard.
6) Leaders must be willing to take RISKS. This sounds like a cliché but if you do things the way they've always been done, you will always get the same result. Read Steve Jobs biography - you may not like the man, but you will respect his ability to take huge chances against all odds, with great payoffs that have created legions of devoted Mac fans. Leaders should also reward risk-taking in others.
7) A leader should be able to be able to FOCUS AND FOLLOW THROUGH. This involves setting priorities and doing what you say you will. Thomas Edison said, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Jerry Brown follows the Latin admonition "age quod agis" which translates as "focus on what you are doing." It is critically important to know what to do, but the genius comes for making it happen through hard work. Doing what you say you will (ideally when you said you will) is a critical and a much underrated leadership trait.
8) And last but certainly not least - it helps to have a sense of HUMOR. The ability to laugh at oneself demonstrates a degree of self-knowledge, and is the easiest way to bring others along with you. Humor is also a great tension breaker, but very inappropriate if used to belittle someone. I think the overwhelming outpouring of grief we all felt recently when we lost Robin Williams speaks to his amazing ability to use humor, be it acting, telling a story or making a point. He particularly excelled at self-deprecation. Margaret Cho's, who can be controversial, use of humor, has done much to challenge stereotypes of Asians and hers is recognized as one of America's most penetrating and relevant voices.
Find all these traits in one person and you are bound to see a leader.
If you have some of these traits but not all—well, that is what training is all about. Which do you have? Which do you need to develop more of?
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