While skills, experience and character all matter, three fundamental traits in a leader come before them all.
I’ve spent 20 years in various teaching and development positions and I’ve come to understand the layering of skills and character traits that combine to develop the ability to do something well.
At first, I saw the obvious traits – then the ones that aren’t immediately apparent and, eventually – I believe I’ve identified the leadership requirements that really matter.
From my experience, when it comes to leading, the traits that really matter are: Safety, Judgement and Excellence.
In my many engagements with senior leaders, I’ve often asked this question: “Are you safe to lead people?”. Sometimes, I get quizzical looks and once or twice people have even taken offence. They shouldn’t – the question is 100% valid: if you are going to lead, you take responsibility for the people who follow you and, if you are going to assume responsibility, then you have to be trustworthy. There are many reasons not to trust a leader and leaders should be open to questions about those reasons.
As an example, any leader who doesn’t have a comfortable relationship with their ‘blindspots’ is absolutely not to be trusted. Any leader that can’t be questioned about their relationship with their ego is equally not to be trusted. Those are two examples and there are plenty more. This question – are you safe to lead people? – is generally a question that only the leader themselves can answer such is the intimate nature of some of the tough questions a leader must consider to form this picture. It takes a level of courage, self-awareness and motivation to explore this inner world which already dispatches a good few people to the un-safe pile.
In the world of ‘grey’ that we live in – and most likely will live in for the remainder of any readers’ lifetime – there are no clear answers. And, given the complexity around us, even getting to the right questions is tricky.
This brings us to the need for exemplary judgement as a leader navigates through the range of decisions that accompany leadership positions.
Broken down, judgement is a combination of a few things: perspective, wisdom, management of ego and self-interest, insight, critical thinking and awareness of internal biases.
None of those abilities is easily-acquired, but they all are needed to ensure on-going sound judgement. I’ve come across way more leaders who think they have this skill than those who feel they don’t. That is a problem in and of itself because good judgement is underpinned by humility.
Charlie Munger, half of the brains trust behind Berkshire Hathaway, is of the belief that no decision should be made without being an expert of the view that opposes your original position (think about that for a moment ….). That’s a high bar and requires a total absence of ego. Good judgement is hard won. Don’t award yourself with this mantle before you’ve earned it.
When you lead, you assume an obligation of excellence. It is an unrelenting requirement (i.e. you can’t take a day off from being excellent) and there are easier and less energy-requiring paths to take.
If you want to lead, continuous excellence is your chosen path. This is the case because leaders give explicit and implicit permissions through every action they take. People – and often entire organisations – take their cue from leaders, making their influence far-ranging and highly consequential. Self-discipline is required for sure, but I’m of the view that something more fundamental lies behind consistent excellence: ’thirst’. Excellence through obligation is unsustainable – you’ll run out of gas. However, the thirst for an ideal that is lofty and is being undertaken for the right reasons makes the commitment to excellence much easier and more joyful.
Assessing yourself against the above logic should provide interesting food for thought. All three require ‘big’ questions to be asked of yourself and are best worked through with a professional coach or trusted advisor by your side.
Keep the answers to yourself if you must, but ask the questions regardless and at the very least, form an answer you’re confident is accurate for you.
Connect with Lockstep at email@example.com if you want to discuss your leadership in more detail.