What makes a good leader?
Is it being an alpha dog who is good at strong-arming his pack into action? Is it the brave warrior that rushes headlong into the fray? Is it the thorough tactician that lays out every move that his squad will make, then insists they follow his plan down to the smallest detail? Is it the disciplinarian who is able to keep his team under his control with fear and punishment?
One could easily argue that none of the above are actually the characteristics of a good leader. While all of the above personalities may be able to get their people to do what they want, they are certainly not creating a cohesive and motivated team that is flexible enough to overcome obstacles or adjust and change course when circumstances change.
A good leader may look different in various situations, depending on the team goals, the arena the team operates in, or even the resources that are available to the team as they try to reach their goals. However, no matter the circumstances, good leaders will all share certain characteristics.
So, what are the characteristics that good leaders share?
Let’s face it, your team is filled with human beings, not robots. All humans carry baggage, have hopes and dreams, can butt heads with other people, and can just have a bad day. Good leaders never treat their team as though they are automatons who can just soldier through. Understanding and accommodating your teams’ personal motivations builds trust. A team that trusts their leader is more likely to raise concerns before they build into major issues. A team that trusts their leader is more likely to trust other team members, and utilize them when their skillset is called for.
Understanding your team member’s emotions also means that you are better equipped to deal with interpersonal conflicts, are able to gain individual’s full buy-in to difficult tasks, and are able to instill confidence in team members when they need to take on new responsibilities.
At first glance, this trait may seem to mean just being aware of your team, your goals, and the milestones that are needed to be reached. And, yes, good leaders are able to stay on top of all of the moving parts involved in a project. But this awareness needs to go much deeper, and it grows out of empathy, for both your team members and yourself.
A good leader must be mindful of their own emotions, as well as have insight into those of the team. Knowing when your team is feeling overwhelmed, or anxious about meeting certain milestones, will help you ensure they get the support and resources they need to get tasks done. It can also mean you understand when interventions are needed to shut down strife between team members, when the team needs to celebrate accomplishments, or when they just need a motivational message to get them over the hump of a difficult day.
Self-awareness is equally important in a good leader. Knowing your own emotional triggers or skill weaknesses, and developing strategies to handle those issues, can be as important as developing a good plan of action for your team toward reaching their goals.
It may seem like your team should understand why they do what they do, but that really isn’t necessarily the case. A lot of people work in an office where they spend their days processing paperwork or adding up columns of numbers. What does success mean to such a team? Does it mean the numbers add up or the paperwork travels from Point A to Point B? It could also mean that budgets balance or that spending is reduced. Which is it? What does failure look like, and how is it handled within the team and the company? Giving your team a thorough understanding of their role in the bigger picture and the why of their job is an important factor in keeping them motivated, engaged, accountable. It is your job as a leader to articulate their end goals, as well as develop a plan of action to guide them through the process of getting there. It is also your job to be able to decisively adjust the plan of action, as situations change, with a clear understanding of your team members’ strengths, the resources at their disposal, and the time constraints they work within.
Good leaders are honest with themselves and their teams. If circumstances have changed, the team needs to know. If the team has failed to reach a milestone, they need to know. If they are on track to meet all the desired metrics, they need to know. If they have gone above and beyond, they need to know that, too. If any of these things are not communicated to the team, it can leave them feeling like they are standing on shaky and unsure ground, even when they are actually meeting or exceeding expectations.
Further, owning up to your own mistakes or shortcomings may be difficult, but that is an important trait in a leader, as well. Generally, teams are well aware when something has gone wrong. Blaming others or not holding yourself accountable destroys trust within your team.
What does accountability look like in practice? It means your team has a clear understanding of plans, goals, and expectations. It means that they are able to communicate concerns and ideas. It means they are able to own their successes, and are encouraged to find solutions to problems before they become failures. Ultimately, it means everyone is on the same page, and can function as a cohesive unit to get things done.
Completing a project is a team effort, literally. We have all likely worked for a manager at some point who congratulates themselves on “their” success, without acknowledging the contributions of the people working under them. There is almost nothing more guaranteed to build resentment in a team than that kind of behavior.
A good leader takes the time to acknowledge the hard work of their team, as a group and as individuals. Even when a team stumbles or fails to reach a goal, a good leader will show gratitude for the effort everyone put in. When their contributions are acknowledged, team members will feel more comfortable learning from mistakes, getting motivated to tackle the obstacles, and developing new processes to successfully reach the end goals. Good leaders also take responsibility for keeping team morale high, and know that boosting team spirit may be exactly what the team needs to feel good enough to continue to work in the face of adversity.
To achieve all of the above, strong communication becomes perhaps the most fundamental traits a good leader should possess. A good leader is able to tailor their message so that every member of the team has a clear understanding of where they stand. Such a leader also understands that communication is a two-way street, and that everyone must feel safe expressing themselves, both to the team leader as well as other members of the team. Listening is as much a part of communication as speaking.
No one is born a good leader. All of the above traits must be developed, and are in fact skills that can be taught. A dedication to learning and personal growth are the first step. Leadership training is the next.
Take the next step: Emotional intelligence, communications skills, basic management techniques, building a strong team, and more, are all things that AdvantEdge Training and Consulting can teach you, or your employees, either as individual subjects or via our new Emerging Leaders Intensive course.