What Makes Great Leaders?

By Renee Davies

Photo by Pixabay

Models and theories on leadership are as numerous as they are varied in their approaches. While research on what defines an effective leader has been extensive, its definition continues to evolve. Once considered defining marks of a leader, individual characteristics such as birth-order, intelligence, and socioeconomic status have lost their prominence in discussions on leadership and the focus has shifted to personality traits.

According to research by Warren Bennis, university professor and founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, all leaders share four significant personality traits: they have guiding vision, passion, integrity, and they are daring.1 Bennis also found that leaders share five common competencies—technical competence, interpersonal skills, conceptual skills, judgment, and character.2 Of the five competencies, Bennis claims that character is the vital element that determines a leader’s effectiveness, adding that “leaders rarely fail because of technical incompetence” but moreso for lack of character.3

We hear that strong character makes strong leaders. But character can be strong and bad. A person’s character will often be the sum total of his or her values. Offerman et al found that employee disillusionment and lack of confidence for leadership stem from the particular values held by leaders and the actions that these values motivate.8 A survey of 2004 workers across Canada showed that three out of four Canadian employees did not trust their employers.6 Bennis emphasizes that employee confidence in leadership is crucial in the workplace, saying that it is “the emotional glue that can bond people to an organization.”

In a survey of 3,149 exiting employees who left their employers voluntarily, the most common expressions documented were disappointment, frustration, anger, disillusionment, resentment, and betrayal. These are said to be emotional responses that spring from four fundamental unmet human needs: the need for trust, hope, a sense of worth and the need to feel competent.4

Bennis says that all too often, organizations elevate people who may have drive and competence but have no integrity or moral compass. Vision, passion, discipline, and persistence are desirable traits, but even they may fall short at times. For instance, vision may seem hollow when business sustains years of downturn, and passion for an idea or product may prove ineffective when competitors have better ideas or products. But the qualities that inspire people to stay the course in the face of great challenges, that garner trust and that breed a sense of worth amongst employees are qualities that are not easily detected, but that are found in the best of leaders. These qualities are empathy, personal responsibility, and an openness to discovering truth.5

Empathy:

According to Janet Macaluso empathy is the ultimate corporate secret.7 It is the most powerful resource and a skill that is critical for leadership. The ability to sense and respond to the feelings of others sets leaders apart from their peers. “They use it to form strong relationships, pick up early warning signs, and recognize opportunities to influence.” The caring aspect of empathy is what inspires people to stay with a leader, even when times are challenging. Empathy breeds loyalty.

Personal Responsibility:

Great leaders do not blame their business conditions on others. They recognize how their behavior affects the corporate vision and how their leadership can affect the bottom line. They do not wait for things to improve, but act to improve things.

Open to Discovering the Truth:

Great leaders are always searching for the truth. They encourage debate and seek truth from it. They are willing to be open and encourage employees to speak truth whatever that may be.

Leaders who demonstrate empathy, who take responsibility when things go wrong, and who encourage openness and truth in the workplace are leaders who gain confidence and trust while engendering self-worth and hope amongst those who follow the lead. Great leaders understand the importance of maximizing human capital—they know that it is crucial to sustained business success.