What Makes a Great Leader

Qualities and traits of a good leader can be challenging to articulate. No two leaders are the same. However, there are some commonalities between today's most successful leaders. Here are just a few you can pick up to start strengthening your leadership capabilities.

What makes a great leader? Is it the result of innate character qualities, or is it a matter of developed skills? In reality, it's a bit of both. 
Great leadership is the intersection of character qualities and developed skills. While some people may have natural charisma, empathy, or resilience, anyone can become a great leader by developing these qualities through focused effort and practice. Guiding teams through today’s business environment is more complex and challenging than ever before, and it requires a particular set of skills and qualities. In this article, we'll explore the essential qualities and skills that great leaders must possess and the steps anyone can take to become a better leader.

Leadership Qualities

Great leaders must possess certain qualities. You can think of qualities or characteristics as behavioral tendencies these leaders exercise everyday. They’re “features” of the person. Let’s dive into 4 critical qualities of great leaders:
Leaders must be honest and trustworthy. Politicians who exhibit questionable ethics often face backlash from constituents and may lose their positions. Maintaining integrity means you speak the truth even when it’s difficult and you have something to lose. 
Leaders need to understand the perspectives and feelings of those around them. Understanding your audience or your team is a major advantage over the competition who is laser focused on their own success. For example, managers who empathize with team members who are struggling in their personal lives can adjust workloads and provide support. This leads to a happier team which leads to a more productive team.
Leaders must be able to bounce back from setbacks and failures. For instance, leaders who have faced significant challenges and persevered, such as Nelson Mandela or Oprah Winfrey, serve as role models for others. Resilient leaders don’t have to go through something deeply traumatic to claim resilience. Often, startup founders have to hear “no” hundreds of times before getting an investment or a first customer. To most people, “no” would wear someone down enough to give up. Many entrepreneurs however, persevere through that stage to get their business off the ground. 
Great leaders understand that they don't have all the answers. Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, acknowledged that his success was partly due to his luck, and mostly the team he surrounded himself with. When leaders show humility, they become more relatable which in turn builds trust. This is valuable to both customers and colleagues. 

Leadership Skills

Beyond these behavioral tendencies, effective leadership requires a particular set of skills that leaders have to work on daily.
In a rapidly changing world, leaders must be quick to adapt to new circumstances and make difficult decisions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders in the healthcare industry had to adjust to the unexpected changes in demand for personal protective equipment (PPE). Beyond healthcare, other manufacturers quickly pivoted their production to support PPE efforts. Not only did this create a new revenue stream but also demonstrated their commitment to public health and safety.
Digital Literacy
Leaders must be conversant with technology to capitalize on the opportunities that technology provides. Companies that implemented remote work policies during the pandemic have reported significant savings on rent and utilities. This is only possible by understanding the opportunities technology provides, but also the shortcomings. Great leaders keep up to date on all the tools that will help their team succeed. It’s not always the leader’s job to know the technology inside out but to ensure company leaders create a culture of digital literacy.
Strategic Thinking
Leaders need to be able to identify new opportunities and challenges based on the changing environment. Pharmaceutical companies identified the need to develop vaccines to help end the pandemic. Microsoft recognizes the changing tides in artificial intelligence and is investing heavily in OpenAI and other AI bets. The key to strategic thinking is reflecting on past decisions and reconsidering them for the current or upcoming moment.
Leaders must communicate effectively with team members, stakeholders, and constituents. For example, politicians can use social media to connect with their constituents and keep them informed. Executives can frequently use internal messaging tools like Teams or Slack. They can also run regular “all-hands” meetings to get visibility with their teams. 

Becoming a Better Leader

Becoming an excellent leader requires a continuous improvement process. Here are some steps to take to improve leadership skills and qualities:
Learn from Others
Look for mentors and role models, and learn from their leadership styles. You don’t have to emulate every quality of a great leader. You can pick and choose the best qualities and skillset from each. For example, you might appreciate Tim Cook’s level-handed management approach, Elon Musk’s uncompromising desire for innovation, and Indro Nooyi’s ability to push her team through transformational change. 
Practice Self-Reflection
Reflect on your leadership style and identify areas for improvement. For instance, leaders can keep a journal to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. 1-1 meetings and skip-level meetings are a great opportunity to get feedback from peers, direct reports, and other professionals in the organization. 
Invest in Your Development
Attend leadership training and development programs, read books, and engage in ongoing learning. For example, a leader new to the investment community might take a course to improve their skills. Or an experienced design leader might level-up on the latest technology to stay relevant. 
Lead by Example
Great leaders lead by example. They model the behavior they want to see from their team members. Leaders who exhibit positive behavior create a work environment that fosters growth and development.
The world of leadership in 2023 is more complex and challenging than ever before. Effective leaders possess a particular set of skills and qualities and must engage in continuous self-improvement. By focusing on developing skills, practicing self-reflection, investing in their development, and leading by example, anyone can become a great leader.

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