LeadershipReading through contemporary leadership materials, one can easily begin to feel as though the key to success as a leader is little more than a numbers game. The literature is rife with examples of the “One leadership quality you can’t be without” or the “ten communication secrets that great leaders possess.” Yet anyone who has been in a leadership position knows that steering your team, division or company is anything but formulaic. So what does it really take?

Numerous tomes have been written about the qualities that make a good leader, and new concepts seem to appear daily. There are a few salient points, however, that recur in one form or fashion in most literature on the subject: know yourself, trust your team, and communicate.

Know Yourself

No matter the angle, everyone seems to agree that good leaders are thoughtful and introspective, whether reading a room or assessing the skill set of an employee.

Take executive presence, for example. According to Muriel Maignan Wilkins, coauthor of Own the Room, those seeking to enhance their ‘leadership presence’ should consider three basic elements before entering into any discussion:

  • Set the right assumptions: Before going into any meeting, consider who will be in the room and think about what your counterpart wants from the encounter. The mindset you bring to the exchange has a considerable impact on the outcome.
  • Review your communications strategy: Review the tools and techniques you typically employ to engage, inspire and influence those around you, and decide what you think is the best approach for the situation at hand.
  • Manage your energy: Match your energy to the situation and make sure you’re mindful of the non-verbal messages you may be sending–standing up straight is just the beginning.

The ability to cast a clear-eyed view on one’s own motivations is also important.  We’ve all been there—an employee’s words or behavior strike a nerve and it’s as if a switch has been flipped. Your response is swift and, if you pause to reflect, predictable.

Psychologist and Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman refers to these emotional responses as ‘modes,’ behavioral repertoires that dictate how we perceive and react to a given situation.  When a leader responds in a positive mode, Goleman explains, all is well, but when responding from a negative mode, there can be many unintended consequences.

For instance, perhaps your response to a direct report’s question is to jump in and solve the problem yourself, thereby robbing your employee of an opportunity to learn and diverting your attention from the larger task at hand.  You’ve reacted in a negative mode and simply implemented rather than leading. The good news, Goleman says, is that with effort and introspection, negative modes can be identified and reversed.

Trust Your Team 

Think back to the time when you were first learning to tie your shoes. A kind adult likely demonstrated the technique a couple of times, explained the steps, then handed the shoestrings over to you. Watching your first few attempts to make that perfect bow was likely taxing, and the urge to jump in and complete the task for you strong, but your mentor let you sort it out. It turns out that there’s scientific research to support that decision.

As PA Consulting Group’s Jordan Cohen explains in his recent HBR Blog post, leaders who dictate overly much can cause a decrease in employee productivity. Conversely, Cohen explains, “If a manager describes the long-term outcome he wants, rather than dictating specific actions, the employee can decide how to arrive there and preserve his perceived sense of control, cognitive function, and ultimately improve his productivity.”


Admittedly, there are many different traits that characterize successful leaders, from the ability to act decisively to the capacity to remain calm under pressure. But in order to truly succeed as a leader, the ability to communicate is key. As Glenn Llopis notes in his Forbes article, “The Most Successful Leaders Do 15 Things Automatically, Every Day,” those leaders who realize the greatest achievements consistently (among other things):

  • Make Others Feel Safe to Speak-Up: Successful leaders deflect attention away from themselves and encourage their employees to voice their opinions.
  • Communicate Expectations: Successful leaders articulate goals and ensure that their employees are clear about their performance expectations.
  • Provide Continuous Feedback: Effective leaders provide constructive feedback to team members and also welcome feedback from their peers.
  • Ask Questions, Seek Counsel: Effective leaders are constantly working to expand their knowledge base.

All good leaders possess an amalgam of qualities–some are inherent, and others are acquired. Different situations call for different types of leadership, yet those who realize success share common traits: they keep an open mind, listen to their instincts, constantly seek to learn, and communicate.

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