Have the Leadership Trait
What is the most important leadership trait for surviving our
tough-as-nails economy? Some leaders might guess intuition (for knowing where to take their company next) or
persuasiveness (for getting others to go along with them)
or resourcefulness (for
getting more bang from very limited bucks). While those things are
important, they are not the most important. The most critical
leadership trait—the one without which none of the others
matter—is something they’re more likely to associate with
four-star generals or firefighters than with leaders. It
Here’s the thing about operating in a harsh business environment: there
are serious consequences for making the wrong move. The safety net
just isn’t there. And because competition is so fierce and customers
are so savvy, leaders may have to make some pretty risky choices to
differentiate themselves. Otherwise they’re a nonentity—and their
career and maybe even their company may fail.
Fortunately, there is some good news. Courage is not a quality that
people are born with. It can
be developed and nurtured. And if leaders commit to leading with
courage, and consciously work toward that goal every day in every
decision they make and every action they take, acting courageously
will soon become an automatic response.
Courage is about clarity and mindfulness—clarity as to what you believe
and mindfulness in the execution of those beliefs in the culture. I
would rather a leader stand up and say that he will adjust his values
based on the circumstances and do whatever he feels like doing because
he really doesn’t care than to have a leader espouse a set of values
and then live out of alignment with them. People crave courageous
In my coaching work I measure the courage of a leader in several ways:
The level of clarity regarding the heart and soul of the leadership
extent is your message clear and inspiring?
extent is it understood and actionable?
extent does it resonate throughout the culture?
extent is it relevant to the culture, the customer, and the
The degree to which the followers are engaged in the strategy.
extent do the followers see how they fit in/contribute to the
extent do you ask for input from your followers?
extent are you flexible in your strategy as long as the outcome is
The degree of action orientation.
extent does the leader work diligently to remove obstacles?
extent is the leader relentless about quickness in decision making
extent does the leader insist on accountability and results over
There are two sides to leadership:
and artistic. The
scientific side encompasses everything a leader has to do every day to
execute the fundamental processes or systems of the business. The
artistic side is all about answering questions like: What
are my values and how do I communicate them to the culture? How do I
connect what I believe with my company’s mission? How do I create
the right kind of culture for the people who follow me? What type of
experience do I need to be creating for my followers so that they have
the greatest chances for success?
Courage takes place on the artistic
scientific sides of leadership. The path to courageous leadership has
six components. If you want an easy way to remember them, try using
the acronym “ATTACK”:
A: Accept Your Current
have found that most leaders either overestimate or underestimate the
health of their current culture. Very few people have a realistic
grasp on it. Leaders need to look reality in the face and accept it.
By the way, this does not mean they should “settle.” Accepting
that they have a less-than-ideal corporate culture is the first step
toward changing that culture for the better. They should ask
themselves this question: What
am I pretending not to
T: Take Responsibility. A
courageous leader is willing to own the results of his or her choices.
They shouldn’t blame the market or interest rates or any other
outside conditions for circumstances inside the company’s culture.
As a leader, they’re their
responsibility. That doesn’t mean every problem their company has is
their “fault,” of course. But if they fail to do anything about
it, that is their
fault. Responsibility is not about blame; it is about response. Leaders should own what is theirs.
T: Take Action. Leaders
are never going to have all the data necessary to make the kinds of
decisions they need to make. They have to act in spite of that fact.
And even if they do have the data, they must be courageous enough not
to feel that they have to have every “t” crossed and every “i”
dotted before they pull the trigger. However, they should make sure
every action they take is in line with where their heart is, where
their values are, and where their culture is—or more accurately,
where they want their culture to be in the future. Analyze the
pitfalls and act quickly.
A: Acknowledge Progress. Many
leaders are so goal-oriented that they can’t really see the
individual steps of the process. They should determine the desirable
results, determine the benchmarks, and be certain that those
benchmarks are acknowledged and celebrated when they are achieved.
They should celebrate them with the same energy and enthusiasm as they
would if the goal were already accomplished.
C: Commit to Lifelong Learning.
constantly learning. If they’re not learning, they’re not leading,
regardless of their title. So many executives get into a leadership
role and have the sense that they have “arrived.” That’s the
death knell for leadership success. Leaders must commit themselves to
learning on three levels: learn about themselves first, their people
second, and their industry third. The extent to which they do these
things, in that order, is the extent to which they’re going to
K: Kindle Relationships. Courageous
leaders are constantly developing people, engaging people, caring
about people’s progress. This does not mean they should gather their
employees around in a circle, have them put their arms around each
other, and lead them all in singing Kum Ba Yah. Nothing could be further from the truth! Courageous
leadership doesn’t mean softening their approach with people. It
actually means toughening their approach. It means confronting people,
challenging people, not letting them get away with being less than
they know they can be.
Let me leave all leaders with one more thought: they are who they are,
both at work and at home. If they are trying to live in two separate
worlds—being one person in their personal life and a different
person in their professional life—they’re on the path to
destruction. I help clients integrate what they actually believe with
how they behave at work and how their culture behaves. Everything
works together to create a life, their life.
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