Leaders have many characteristics, but according to one executive, three key traits are evident in every successful leader.
There’s no magic formula or recipe for “What makes a leader?” Leaders come in all different shapes and sizes, with diverse backgrounds and experiences. That’s why leadership, and more importantly leadership style, is deeply personal.
Though countless personality traits, approaches and styles can form a leader’s DNA, three characteristics are consistently exhibited by successful leaders: They are authentic, supportive and trustworthy. How well leaders adapt and express these characteristics in day-to-day dealings with their teams will ultimately determine their ability to inspire others and lead effectively.
Leadership Trait No. 1: Be Authentic
Successful leaders care about far more than their employees’ work performance. Whenever I meet with employees, I spend the first few minutes asking about their lives outside of work—families, pets, upcoming vacations, sick parents, books they’re reading, etc. In addition to being genuinely interested, this helps my team know I care about them as people, not just as employees. In fact, I’ve known most of my employees far longer outside of our current work relationship. Work is simply one facet of our deeper personal relationships. As a manager, I care about an employee’s work. As a leader, I care about the whole person.
Authenticity goes both ways. That’s why I share my work and personal life with my employees as well. They not only know what I expect at work, but also who I am as a person. They know about my outside interests, family and, when appropriate, personal and work-related ups and downs. A good leader strives not only to know their team, but also to be known by that team. That’s how strong, long-lasting partnership are forged.
Leadership Trait No. 2: Be Supportive
When the going gets tough, good leaders have their team members’ backs. Regardless of their industry, position and experience, all employees experience challenges at work. Projects hit roadblocks. Deadlines are missed. Personalities clash. Honest mistakes are made.
Good leaders use these opportunities to show grace and support. They acknowledge and address issues, but always maintain public support for their teams. They help employees understand it’s OK to make mistakes, as long as they learn from them. It’s okay to try new things, even if they don’t always turn out as planned. Employees who “work scared” are ineffective. Employees who know their leader is there to catch them if they fall work courageously.
(Note: There’s a big difference between condoning incompetency and being supportive. Good leaders aggressively coach employees with consistent performance issues, and may eventually need to transition underperforming team members out of employment. Support, as I refer to it here, is shown to high-potential, high-performing employees who give their all and have the capacity to learn from their mistakes.)
Leadership Trait No. 3: Be Trustworthy
Trust is the foundation of a good marriage. It’s also the foundation of a good leader-employee partnership. Employees work harder, contribute more and get greater enjoyment out of their work when they genuinely trust their leaders. But, their trust must be earned every day.
Good leaders are authentic and supportive. But they also display unwavering honesty, ethical behavior and sound decision-making with their team’s best interests at heart. Strong leaders also are transparent and trust their employees enough to share candid feedback and updates. They don’t sugarcoat. They don’t beat around the bush. They don’t keep employees in the dark “for their own good.” Employees are adults, and they should be treated like adults. Hearing the truth—good or bad—directly from their leaders builds trust.
Putting it all Together
Though there’s no magic bullet for an effective leader, those who make an intentional effort to be authentic, supportive and trustworthy will reap the rewards of stronger teams, better results and greater personal and professional fulfillment.
Todd Richardson is Executive Vice President of Administration at ExactTarget. Richardson was featured in Issue No. 8 of Forefront.
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