A conversation I had earlier today got me thinking about what it means to be a leader.
Is it technical skill? Surely, you need to have the skill to perform your duties and an understanding of what your company or organization does to be successful. Is it experience? Yes, often that helps, though I think we all know that there have been cases where someone may have skills from another industry that can be transferred without having what is considered the “right” experience on paper, and still be a wildly successful leader. Is it executive presence? That may be debatable and probably depends on the audience that you’re speaking to as to what their definition of “executive presence” is.
So what are the right ingredients for being a leader?
Here is my non-exhaustive list of characteristics for effective leadership that I’ve had the chance to observe (and hopefully emulate!) over my career:
- Showing up: I’ve mentioned it here before that one of my favorite quotes is from Boston Marathon winner, Des Linden, who once said that the key to success is to “keep showing up.” And I believe that that’s a quality of leadership too. Whether you’re heading into your most profitable year ever, or you’re facing a pandemic, a leader needs to show up and be present. Recently, I talked about the leadership lessons that I learned during the pandemic, and I mentioned that leaders I’ve talked to have put on a brave face while crossing our fingers behind our backs – this is part of showing up too. We may not always know how things are going to turn out, but even when that’s the case (like in a global pandemic or an economic downturn), you still need to be present and find ways to communicate with the people that work with and for you. I remember thinking early on in the lockdowns that our lawyers were so busy trying to manage their own businesses that they didn’t need to hear from me or be bothered – but it turned out that they needed reassurance (and in many cases resources) that things were going to be okay, that we were here and available for them. I was able to provide that for them by being showing up in a variety of ways.
- Digging in: This may sound like showing up, and in some sense, it is because it does require your presence, but it’s deeper than that – digging in is about rolling up your sleeves and participating where you’re needed. Great leaders are clearly adept at hiring the right people in the right places and then not micromanaging them – this isn’t that. It’s about knowing when it’s all hands on deck, pitching in, and never believing any job is too small for you because of your position. This can apply to leaders in a team as well as leaders of an entire company (I know someone came to mind when I described that scenario). In previous jobs, I’ve worked with people who were interning with us who were surprised to be given jobs around data entry or mailing things – they felt it was busywork. But in actuality, it was work that one of the other team members (even senior members of the team) would have been doing if the interns weren’t tasked with it. It was just another part of the job that was there to learn. We’re all better leaders when we not only understand how to do all the various roles within our companies and firms but are willing to do them if we need to.
- Opening a dialogue: Another essential leadership quality is the willingness to open a dialogue with others, even when those conversations are difficult. I’m taking a LinkedIn course right now on conflict resolution with Lynn Maureen Hurdle, and she delves into the ways that conflict shows up and how we may be avoiding it, as well as how to effectively deal with it. I’ve always considered myself a good listener, and a fairly good mediator, but her course has me thinking more deeply about some of my natural inclinations when dealing with conflict and how I need to practice better listening skills in an active way. But obviously, the ability to open a dialogue is more than just conflict resolution. Leaders are challenged with creating conversations around big and small topics – whether it’s larger societal issues like race, gender, religion, etc. to ensure that they’re creating a safe and inclusive workplace, or having conversations with individuals to understand their needs or positions. Our attention spans are all shorter these days and made shorter still when you have a lot on your plate that you’d like to finish (although, whether you’re in a leadership position or not, point me to someone who isn’t busy!). So we can be quick to dash off a snarky response or even ignore a conversation completely because to have it “right” means to put in the work to do it. Good leaders are the ones who take the time to pause, do the work that is required (often, showing up and digging in!) and they engage in the conversations.
- Vulnerability: In the past, all of us were told to leave our personal lives at home and stay professional at work. I suspect many of us are still told to be that way. I am hopeful that one of the things that the pandemic has changed is the ability for us to bring our whole selves to work. It’s impractical to be one person at home and another in the office. Frankly, it’s unnatural. Being a whole person at work makes us better at our jobs. That’s not to say we don’t keep some things private – of course, we do. It’s a sort of sanitized version of our home lives – I’m not going to share the same things from a chat with my friends in a conversation with my colleagues. However, some vulnerability is not only good, but it’s important, particularly from leaders. When leaders lead with vulnerability, they let their team know that it’s okay to be human. And that humanity makes the workplace a safe and comfortable place to be. Consider the pandemic for example – a leader might say to her organization that she’s worried too. This is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, and she doesn’t know what’s coming next. But she knows that if they pull together as a team, they’ll all make it through. And then she goes into specifics about how the organization is going to manage workflow, whether people’s jobs will be affected, the healthcare policies for COVID exposures, etc. She leaves time open for whatever questions people have, whether they’re personal or professional, and encourages people to work flexibly, as long as the work gets done, and offers solutions for how that might happen. She then schedules one-on-one calls with her team and has all managers schedule one-on-one calls with each of their teams, to find out how everyone is really doing. This encourages open dialogue so that each member of the organization feels that they can share how they’re coping and get immediate help as they need it (as long as the company acts on those requests).
- Being a team player: We always consider the leader of a team or organization to be a step above the rest of the group. But what is a leader without their team? Nobody can do it alone. A great leader knows this and is a team player all the way. As I mentioned above, they know how to put together a team that is strong in the right places and then letting them do their thing, without micromanaging them. They pitch in their own skills as part of this team, which are an asset and a complement to them. And then when that team is successful, the leader credits the team and not him, her, or themself – it’s always the strength of the whole that gets them to the finish line. As an example, I’d like to share a recent, sort of adjacent, success – this past weekend, I ran a virtual half marathon. I know many people think the virtual races don’t count, but for this one, we had to track our mileage with a GPS app and register it with the race organizers in order to get the medals which will be shipped next month (so I feel that it counts). Running can often feel like a very solitary thing. Unless you’re running with other people, you log the miles yourself, you are accountable to yourself, and you (mostly) let yourself down if you don’t show up in your training and on race day. But for me, I’m part of a team – the Badass Lady Gang (BALG), a global group of women who support each other through life, with a side of running. Last year, some of you may remember that I had hip surgery, and this was going to be my longest mileage attempt in a while. I’ve been with the BALG for about three years, and post-surgery and during the pandemic, I recovered by walking, then running, then walking again, until I could solidly begin a running program. I did easy runs, speedwork, strength training, long runs – all in connection with weekly coaching calls with my group of gals. Without this team, I wouldn’t have made it through the training or the race – I may have run by myself, but I had women messaging me throughout the run, I had all of the work I had done and the things I had learned from my coach, and from each of them, to carry with me. It was truly a team effort. Leadership at work is like that too – we are all made up of the things we have learned from others and the work we do with our teams.
- The buck stops here: Though we may be working as teams and taking credit as teams, the blame stops with the leader. When something goes wrong, there may be reasons and excuses, but in the end, as the leader, the responsibility is yours. Unfortunately, that’s the job the leader signs up for. It’s the least glamorous part of leadership, but it’s also one of the most important. If your team doesn’t know that you’ll protect them, there’s no trust. And trust is one of the most essential qualities to develop among the members of your team. That’s not to say that if there’s a fundamental problem with someone or something in your organization that you don’t then need to have one of those hard conversations to uncover it and repair it, but outwardly and officially, you own the mistake to protect your team. That’s also part of being a team player.
What are the other essential characteristics to being a leader that you would add?