In my over 40 years of leadership experience at world-class global companies, and in my ongoing work teaching and coaching leaders from all over the country at various stages in their careers, I've developed a very clear point-of-view about what behaviors contribute to leadership that works.
That point-of-view is gleaned from my own leadership journey as well as hundreds of books on the topic and my observations of the other leaders in the marketplace. I've worked with many visionary, inspirational, and highly effective leaders. And I've been exposed to just as many who were out of their depth, short-sighted, or simply lacked the skill to get the job done in a quality and sustainable way. I've seen what works and what doesn't.
At a high-level, in a nutshell, I've observed that the very best leaders approach their work in a way that is tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people. They are experts at doing both; they deftly marry the "head" and the "heart." Masterfully, they can simultaneously prioritize people and performance — and do so in a way that is humble, brave, and authentic to who they really are.
But what does all that mean from a tactical standpoint? What are the practices that bring this larger idea of leadership that works to life? What do great leaders have in common?
In my experience, great leaders have seven important things in common. In those seven things, you'll find an equal balance of practices that are people-focused, and practices that are performance-oriented.
1. They know how to inspire trust. And they prioritize building trust first. Great leaders know that earning confidence from the people they seek to lead is the single most important step to unlocking higher performance in their organizations and teams.
In a high-trust environment, people rally around a shared vision, have each other's back, and are aligned properly to produce results that meet, and often exceed expectations. Trust is the lubricant that enables the high-functioning human machinery of an ideal enterprise.
Great leaders build trust by:
- Honoring all stakeholders.
- Declaring themselves and doing what they say they are going to do.
- Developing and displaying character and competence — consistently.
- Upholding high ethical standards.
- Modeling the behavior they expect from others.
- Acknowledging mistakes and swiftly correcting them.
- Consistently performing to an exemplary standard themselves.
2. They articulate a higher purpose - both for themselves and for the organization. Great leaders understand the power of crafting an aspirational calling that anchors the entire effort, resonates with stakeholders, and delivers both economic and social value.
Today's employees are motivated by more than a mere paycheck (although that matters too); they want to know that their work matters. A clear and inspiring purpose can tether everybody's work to shared meaning at the organizational level, and can help leaders stay on the right path at the personal level.
Great leaders clarify their higher purpose by:
- Reflecting on their values and beliefs.
- Articulating to people what their work means and why it's important.
- Dedicating themselves to finding ways to deliver societal value in addition to economic value.
- Championing their calling with intentionality, passion, persistence, and humility.
- Making certain the higher purpose always governs the direction of the organization.
3. They create a clear and compelling direction for people to follow. With great intention, they plan to perform. The best leaders understand that to realize their higher purpose, and create value for all their stakeholders, they must have a clear and effective strategy for moving towards their goals.
The ones who succeed are able to develop a competitively advantaged direction for advancing their agenda — a direction they can succinctly communicate. And, while they lead the charge, they don't do it unilaterally. To create a direction that people will follow, they are collaborative, smartly seeking input and cohesion.
Great leaders create direction by:
- Confronting the brutal facts facing them and their organization. They question assumptions from the old-guard and challenge paradigms.
- Building an aspirational — but achievable — plan for moving forward while making sure to honor all constituents.
- Dispelling ambiguity, they are careful to make sure the expectations of the plan are clear to all.
4. They know how to align the organization, or their team, to get the results they want. Highly skilled leaders understand that a clear direction and clarity of purpose are worthless if resources aren't configured properly to follow the strategy and get the desired result. Stephen Covey famously said, "An organization is perfectly aligned to get the results it is getting."
It's an evergreen statement. Competent leaders understand that if things aren't going to plan, the alignment must be adjusted. It's crucial to develop a system that facilitates the right work being done, by the right people, in the right way; it's the best way to be properly positioned for success.
Great leaders expertly drive alignment by:
- Taking great care to organize resources (people, finances, time) to deliver the plan, task, or goal.
- Being process-focused; establishing a self-sustaining system that is built to enable everybody to work the plan with agility.
- Continuously confirming that everybody understands their unique roles and responsibilities.
5. They actively cultivate – and nurture – a palpable sense of vitality in their organization. They are obsessed with keeping people engaged in the work
It's one of my most deeply held leadership beliefs that, to win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace. Research reveals the same. Companies with higher rates of employee engagement have been shown to meaningfully outperform those with low engagement.
But a workplace that teems with vitality is no accident; a lot of thought and effort goes into to creating an engaged employee population. The leaders who consistently win know this -- and they configure their leadership approach towards people, people, people.
Great leaders create vitality by:
- Finding ways to give people the energy to do their absolute best work.
- Motivating people to be actively engaged in delivering best-in-class results.
- Celebrating achievements and acknowledging shortcomings.
- Challenging all to do better through swift and constructive feedback.
- Creating an environment where high-performers feel unmistakably valued.
6. They consistently execute; they know that the name of the game is translating trust, purpose, direction, and vitality into excellent execution.
The most sought-after leaders know that "done is better than perfect" and that a good plan well-executed beats a perfect plan poorly-executed every single time. This can be the least glamorous area of leadership to talk about but it's what truly separates top-of-class leaders from the rest. Good intentions and inspiring words don't amount to much if there is no ability to execute on the agreed upon plan. In the real world, where the stakes are high and the competition is fierce, strong execution is mandatory.
To do it right, leaders must make sure there is follow-through, that results are tracked and measured, and that progress is not halted by obstacles.
Great leaders execute with excellence by:
- Implementing plans with extremely disciplined task management.
- Acting decisively whenever necessary.
- Measuring progress and finding ways to adapt as needed.
- Finding a harmonious balance between discipline and flexibility to ensure goals are always met.
7. They are able to produce extraordinary results, meeting and often exceeding expectations. The sharpest leaders go above and beyond. They are not only execution-obsessed; with admirable resolve, they are fixated on the results that execution can bring. Frankly, a plan can be executed to the letter and still not produce the desired outcome.
But leadership is about getting things done. The best leaders are hyper-focused on delivering. Not just on delivering in a quality way. But on delivering over and over again. Leaders who excel in this area are ever-mindful of their commitment to performance, and of the promise they've made to their stakeholders. Their every effort is carried out with a view towards honoring that promise.
Great leaders produce extraordinary results by:
- Repeatedly delivering.
- Embracing and embodying a results-oriented mindset
- Operating in three "time zones" simultaneously. Wisely, they attend to the present, the past, and the future, operating with a view towards the near and long term.
In my view, leadership is both a science and an art; it's the finely-honed craft of effectively influencing others. In these seven things that great leaders have in common, there's a little from the art side, and a little from the science side.
In life there are no guarantees, but when you put these seven things together, in my experience, you're in a good position to practice and excel in leadership that really works.
Douglas Conant is the founder of ConantLeadership, a mission-driven community of leaders and learners who are championing leadership that works in the 21st century. He is also the former president of the Nabisco Foods Company, CEO of Campbell Soup Company and chairman of Avon Products.
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