The question is one I have heard countless times over the years: “Hey Marcel, what would you say are the traits that make a great leader?” (not exactly a question that can be answered standing in line at Starbucks!) And it’s certainly not a question that can be answered in one drive-by post. So I’m starting a six-part series that answers what great leaders do differently to succeed in business and life. This is part 1.
But first, the topic of leadership is as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. We need to narrow it down to a proven framework that practically works. I’m going to break down this series into six key areas of leadership research and practice, plus my own observations, while borrowing from the research of Dr. Jim Laub. Laub is Dean of MacArthur School of Leadership at Palm Beach University, and President of the OLAgroup. He developed the Organizational Leadership Assessment (OLA) — arguably the best and only available tool in the market to assess organizational health based on the foundation of effective servant leadership. It’s a great tool that I will be using with clients, and I’m really thankful for his partnership.
Here are the six things great leaders do differently:
- They Display Authenticity (today’s focus below)
- They Value People
- They Develop People
- They Build Community
- They Provide Leadership
- They Share Leadership
So lets get rolling with #1 on the list. We’ll start with the proven fact that great leaders display authenticity. Here are five ways they do this well:
1. They Drop the Mask and Show up with Their True Selves
Perhaps you feel that you have to act in a certain way or say certain things around your peers or colleagues so that you’ll be accepted. That is a masked leader. Such leader plays a role to fit in, usually to impress others, manipulate the outcome to gain an edge, or because he/she wants something the other person has. Instead of behaving in a genuine way, a leader with a facade merges “I” with “them,” tells people what he thinks they want to hear, and acts in ways that go against his/her true nature. In short, by conforming to other people’s standards this masked leader loses himself in others; he is living inauthentically.
Authentic leaders do a brave thing: they trust — in themselves, and from a faith-level, in God. So next time you face adversity, just show up with who you are. Drop the mask, take that risk, be naked and vulnerable. Just be.
When we give ourselves permission to be ourselves, we can live free from others’ ideas, ideals, and expectations, and we can choose our own path. And when we love ourselves that way, unconditionally, magic happens.
2. They Promote Trust and Open Communication
There’s a type of leadership I have seen where employees walk on eggshells, not really sure where they stand and how open they can be with each other, and especially with those in management roles. Imagine coming to work there everyday. This is an environment where perhaps some risks are taken but failure is still feared and many workers workers don’t feel valued. Even worse, many feel used by those in leadership positions. But, why?
Well, no breakthrough or a-ha! moment here. People respond to leaders they can trust, and are motivated to the rafters in trustworthy organizations. Why? Because they feel safe. When they are allowed to take risks, exercise their creativity, communicate ideas openly, provide input to major decisions without reprimand, and work alongside their leaders as partners — not worker bees — in a spirit of collaboration, you will see your employee satisfaction surveys skyrocket.
3. They Use Humility as a Strength
I’ve heard a few times from people in position of power that humility is weak. Yet this core spiritual principle drives at the inner strongholds that make a bad leader: pride, self-centeredness, judgmentalism, control, and impulsiveness. Like the human body needs oxygen, humility is vital to the growth of a strong leader. In fact, if you want to build up self-esteem and honesty that you can elevate in your work relationships, humility needs to enter into partnership with these practices, otherwise they are powerless!
Jim Collins has probably dedicated more time writing about humble leaders than any other topic in his landmark study of Level 5 Leadership. He states,
Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious–but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.
And If your executive or manager has no shortage of ego, and displays all the charisma in the world, pay close attention; it can be as much a liability as an asset. Ask the late Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron. Let me clarify: a leader can have charisma and a healthy ego in the form of high self-esteem, and when coupled with humility, this is a leader you want to follow because he/she is safe. If your top leader fits in this category, chances are pretty good that you won’t find them swaggering, bragging, or being a perfectionist — traits that camouflage insecurities or pride. The reality is this: great self-esteem comes from a humble person who surrenders everything that makes him think he’s “the man.” And in doing so, that person re-discovers the true, authentic self that God created him/her to be.
4. They Have Superhero-Like Listening Skills
Effective communication isn’t just about talking; it is also the ability to listen and understand what’s happening on the other side of the fence; to “read” and interpret body language, and to know how to approach another person so you can get your points across in a respectful and constructive manner. But it goes way beyond that.
Authentic listeners don’t dominate the conversation by talking only about themselves. They reflect back what they heard (“What I hear you saying is…”), ask questions to probe the other person’s feelings or opinions on the topic of conversation. And you will hardly find them talking over someone’s point. It may cause the other person to lose interest in the conversation, or shut down — leading to lights on, nobody home.
Authentic listeners have uncanny, X-Men-like ability to listen intuitively to the other person’s story, searching conversations for depth, meaning and understanding with their needs in mind. The listening has only one modus operandi: how can I help the other person? This is a reflection of their “giver” nature, as described by Adam Grant in his best-seller, Give and Take.
5. They Get People from the Neck Up
Great leaders influence their people to contribute their hearts and minds, creativity, excellence, and to give their all for the team. Great leaders will get their people to commit to the mission, to take the hill and capture the flag. This takes inspiration, and these leaders will display authenticity by connecting on an emotional level while keeping everyone focused on the prize.
Discussion: In what ways do you display authenticity?
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