Think of great business leaders, and Henry Ford, Madame C.J. Walker, Andrew Carnegie, Estée Lauder and Steve Jobs may come to mind. Regardless of when they rose to prominence, all were not only effective leaders but visionaries and disruptors whose innovative ideas took their companies to new levels and defined their respective industries. When considering the accomplishments of luminaries who exemplify effective leadership, what I find interesting is that beyond the obvious (intelligence, discipline, work ethic), certain characteristics span culture, industries, and even time.
More than one road to leadership
First, while there are some (Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, for example) for whom leadership was their destiny, I also believe that effective leaders are not necessarily born as such. They can be made through desire, hard work and preparation. Some are fortunate enough to access the management track early on; growth comes quickly with the guidance of mentors who provide real-world context after years of business school theory.
Others become accomplished leaders in a nonlinear fashion, leapfrogging their way up by sheer tenacity and a willingness to go wherever the opportunity presents itself and gaining essential experience and lessons along the way. Though there are multiple paths to becoming an effective leader, all roads seem to intersect at several behaviors, attitudes and characteristics that the best leaders exhibit. Moreover, many of these traits focus not on business capability but human virtues.
Effective leaders are often described as:
Effective leaders genuinely enjoy recognizing employees rather than bask alone in the spotlight. They understand the need to trust others and delegate authority, giving decision-makers room to fly. They’ll gladly share credit for a job well done and are eager to convey lessons learned and best practices honed over the years in order to pay it forward.
Effective leaders prepare thoroughly for the decisions and duties they must undertake yet are never content with what they already know. They thirst for greater knowledge and remain open to learning new things, receptive to new ideas and methods (including how to improve their performance).
Effective leaders respect the bottom line yet never lose sight of the people responsible for delivering it. When leaders demonstrate active listening, employees feel they are being heard and understood and valued and respected on a personal and professional level. And when great joy or sorrow befalls one of their own, efficient leaders empathize and don’t begrudge employees the time they need to process major life events.
Company culture and employee behavior reflect the attitude at the top. Efficient leaders walk the talk in every way, and employees emulate those cultural cues on everything from embracing casual wear to their commitment to corporate social responsibility; feeling secure to take earned vacation in an always-busy environment without fear of being considered “not a team player”; being willing to speak truth to power without fear of retaliation: or recognizing that pursuit of the unicorn known as work/life balance may occasionally mean that a five-year-old playing dress-up is in the background on your team’s Zoom call.