WJM Associates has a strong and definitive point of view when it comes to identifying characteristics of effective leadership. Specifically, WJM views leadership effectiveness as the ability to build a team that achieves sustained, long-term performance. If effective teams can be established and maintained, positive organizational outcomes will emerge. It is not the popularity or charisma of the group’s leader that accounts for a team’s success, but rather a short list of characteristics that are common among effective leaders, regardless of the industry, organization, or level of the individual within the organization.
The objective of this article is to summarize these characteristics, supplementing existing research by experts such as Hogan and Jim Collins with intelligence gathered by WJM while having the privilege of working with many top executives over the past eleven years.
Characteristics of Effective Leadership
A leader’s ability to build and maintain successful teams—and by extension, a successful organization—is dependent on the following attributes:
This concerns credibility as a leader; keeping one’s word, fulfilling one’s promise, promoting transparency, not playing favorites, not taking advantage of one’s position or claiming special privileges. Beyond ethical integrity, the leader must consistently adhere to the company’s stated values and vision during both better and tougher times. Research shows reliable correlations between trust in a supervisor and a range of positive outcomes, including improved job performance, job satisfaction and commitment to the organization. A perceived lack of authenticity in a company’s leaders soon leads to low levels of trust, poor morale, widespread cynicism and plummeting productivity.
The best leaders make sound, defensible decisions in a timely fashion, especially in times of crisis and uncertainty. Managers at all levels of the organization are involved in constant decision-making and the quality of these decisions (both speed and soundness) accumulates and decides the fate of the organization. Executives perceived as indecisive or poor decision makers will quickly lose the confidence and commitment of their team.
- Strategic Acumen
Strategic acumen means maintaining a long-term business perspective and having a talent for evaluating, promoting, and constantly revising this perspective. This includes having a high degree of awareness of industry and international trends and dynamics, in particular, competitor and customer strategic business needs and opportunities. Of course, strategic acumen needs to be balanced by complementary operational acumen in order to ensure efficient and effective implementation of the strategic decisions.
The ability to craft and communicate a vision is critical to engaging a team and turning fear of the unknown into confidence and enthusiasm. This requires the ability to clearly define the company’s future in vivid terms through actions and words. Napoleon noted that “leaders are dealers in hope,” and vision is their currency.
According to the extensive empirical research conducted by organizational effectiveness expert Jim Collins, a key shared attribute by leaders of the world’s most successful companies is genuine personal humility. This is a sharp contradiction of conventional thought that leaders should be charismatic and larger-than-life. In describing this trait, Collins refers to “the window and the mirror:” Effective leaders look out the window to assign credit—to colleagues, external factors and good luck, while looking in the mirror to assign responsibility for poor results, never blaming others. Conversely, when a leader has an insatiable ego, cannot subjugate themselves to something larger, (i.e., their companies), or craves continuous approbation, other team members begin to realize that their personal contributions aren’t important—an entire organization can become crippled as a result.
- Talent Selection
An effective leader has a clear understanding of the individual competencies required for success in the key positions on his team. He sets high standards for the selection of individuals and continually raises the bar on expectations to upgrade the key talent in the company. He can assess talent quickly and makes objective and tough-minded calls about people – knows how to selectively invest and when to prune or make a change. This does not mean completely eliminating dissension from the team (“you’re either with me, or against me”). On the contrary, dismissing contrasting viewpoints can cut the leader off from his best chance of seeing and correcting problems as they arise.
- Coaching & Feedback
An effective leader encourages, supports and develops her team—in short, she coaches them. She needs to know her team members’ strengths, triggers that activate those strengths and their learning styles. When a leader develops a coaching style of management, there is a shift in focus that enhances her ability to lead exponentially. And when those who report to the leader witness her commitment to development, they also become devoted to developing talent, resulting in a positive cascade. At the core of this coaching-style of leading is providing frequent, and timely feedback. An overwhelming body of research clearly indicates the value of heightened self-awareness. From the recipient’s point of view, useful feedback is often a rare phenomenon, especially the higher you go in an organization. When a leader tells her people the truth about their performance and where they stand, she relieves them of the pain of ambiguity and builds trust, commitment and alignment with organizational goals. This feedback should not be saved for annual performance reviews, but rather given regularly and as close to the time of the event as possible.
Written by Tim Morin, Scott Litchfield and Dr. Edmund Piccolino. Additional sources: “Personality and the Fate of Organizations” by Robert Hogan and “What Great Leaders Do” (Harvard Business Review) by Robert Quinn, Marcus Buckingham and Jim Collins.