What Makes a Great Leader? Four Fundamental Traits that May Surprise You

What Makes a Great Leader? Four Fundamental Traits that May Surprise You

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

What are you going to write next?

This was the last question during an interview for an article about the book I published in 2017. Prior to this, one of my lifetime goals was writing a book. After three years of writing and editing; pausing and restarting; I had not thought about writing anything beyond this book. At that moment, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings to never spend another Saturday writing again. I was also six months pregnant with my first child and focused on birthing my real baby instead of another book baby. No. More. Writing.

Compelled for an answer; however, I shared a couple ideas for future books, one of them being about the transition to one’s first leadership role. This phase of my life stands out for me as a particularly painful time. Transitioning from an individual contributor to a leader and a manager of people is challenging; you have to completely change not only your mindset at work but also the mindset of how other people interact with you. I struggled with this transition for a couple years and only made it through by leaning on mentors and colleagues at work as well as professors and peers in my MBA program, as well as a few good writers and thought leaders for guidance on how to become a good (ideally great) leader, especially at a young age. I'd also be remiss to not mention the grace that many people gave me as I learned to lead.

I’ve thought about this topic off and on over the past few years, debating on the timing to tackle another book (Baby #2 was born almost three years ago, and  the idea of starting book baby #2 is even less appealing now than it was two years ago when I write the first version of this article). Instead of diving into another book during this season of life, I decided to start a four-part miniseries to preview the content that I’ve been reflecting on for new leaders. This seems more manageable, it gets the content into the hands of people who are in that season of life, and it opens the door for comments and feedback - both of which I’d love to hear.

As I reflected on all the feedback and learning I had during my transition to a leader and a manager of people, there were four themes that emerged: Character, Credibility, Caring, and Connection. I’ll explore each theme in depth one week at a time; right now, I want to explain what I mean by each and why each is important. Also, I want to clarify that while you do not need to manage people to be a leader, if you are managing people, you should also be a leader. While they are two separate things, both are important.  These traits have also been heavy on my mind as habits I have lost sight of between COVID, working from home, having small children, feeling the constant pull of too much to do and never enough time to do it, and a personal lack of intentionality to shift how I live these traits out daily.  Virtues rarely surface without a plan or an intent to pursue that path, and I will be the first to admit that I've let these go for a variety of reasons.  Consider this my own self-checkup. 

Character

Dictionary.com defines character as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual”. I'd take it further and think about defining it as someone who has integrity, virtue, or perhaps high standards of behavior.  As a leader, you must be intentional about defining and exemplifying your character. How do you want people to describe you? Is that the kind of person you would want to follow? Can people predict how you will behave based on your past behavior? The best leaders I’ve worked with have character traits like integrity, transparency, and authenticity. There are many more attributes that make up their character, but these three are fundamental to a healthy leader and team or organization.

Credibility

Leaders can gain credibility with others when they actively listen to others and take the time to learn how things work, either by doing the work themselves or spending the time to ask questions and gain a deep understanding of the work by the people doing it. This is especially important when a leader wants to institute changes to a team or organization.  The idea might be amazing - but if the leader lacks credibility, the implementation will often fail.

Caring

Great leaders care about people. Period. That doesn’t mean they are pushovers or avoid tough decisions; sometimes caring about people means making extraordinarily challenging decisions that unfavorably impact some people for the overall good of the organization. During these times, leaders who care about people will execute the decision in a way that shows their humility, conscientiousness, and empathy for others.

Connection

Of these four themes, I personally struggled with connection the most. As someone who is competitive and can become laser-focused on finishing the thing in front of me, I tend to focus too much on accomplishing things and not enough on connecting with people. Through feedback from others and by gaining a deeper understanding of myself and my flaws, I have found joy in connecting with people and building relationships with them. One question interview candidates often ask me is what my favorite thing is about my employer, and I always tell them it’s the people. Connecting with people, understanding where they are in life and with work, and finding ways to help make their lives better is part of my “why” and is so important for leaders to practice.

Join me each week as we explore these four themes in depth with stories, examples, and resources to help you wherever you are in your leadership journey. And, as I mentioned, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

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