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Which Leadership Attributes Make the Biggest Difference?

Authors: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

This is a recurring and popular question: What are the leadership attributes that contribute most to effectiveness and success?

In the answer to this question, people are looking for a definitive list of the leadership attributes that universally predict success.

We believe we have the honest answer: There is not a definitive a list of common leadership attributes that always make a difference. Further, the use of the word “attributes” is problematic because it becomes a catch-all for too broad a range of topics, issues, behaviors and actions.

Why? Because it depends upon personal and situational dynamics.

Research and experience to date shows there are a number of leadership attributes that can make a difference, depending upon the situation. Some contextual considerations include: In what industry? At what stage in the business process? In what country? Startup or turn around? Competitive market or unique offerings? History? Global economy? Marketplace trends?

Searching for THE list would make things easier. It would provide guidance to current and future leaders and inform their development. It would make recruiting easier.

Expectations for finding THE list, in part, comes from a popular study that has been repeated countless times, ending up in articles or books typically called The 10 Characteristics of Great Leaders.  There’s always a number in the title, 10 or fewer. The lower the number, the more books it sells. It involves studying a number of consensus leaders, dead or alive, deducing what each used as leadership attributes, and documenting what everyone had in common.

So, Jack Welsh, Nelson Mandella, George Washington, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jack Kennedy, Oprah, Bill Clinton, and other luminaries are on the list. The process described in the previous paragraph does lead to a list, which is offered by the author as THE list. The problem? When you use the list and code it back into all of the leaders, none of them have everything on the list. Many leaders don’t have many that are on the list. In fact, they all led in their own way. Each was an individual leader who was successful in their time and in their situation. If all times and all situations were the same, then there could be THE list.

But there is hope. There are leadership accountabilities and attributes that matter.

Three Leadership Accountabilities

First consider what leaders do and what they are held accountable for.

At a high level, there are three clusters of responsibility. In reviewing the most common job descriptions of leaders across industries–profit and non-profit, government, education and the military–leaders are held accountable for strategy, operations and people.

  • Almost all leaders are held accountable for determining direction: the vision, mission, values, culture, goals and strategy that will result in the organization flourishing.
  • Almost all leaders are held accountable for operations: planning, executing, running things, managing assets and producing results aligned to the strategy.
  • Almost all leaders are held accountable for leveraging people in service of getting great things done.

Leaders historically are best at strategy and good at inspiring people, though not as good at managing others. Most get passable marks on running things.

What are the leadership attributes that lead to being good at those three things? Again, there is a general list but no such thing as THE list. Let’s take a look.

Leadership Graphic
7 Essential Leadership Attributes for Leading Effectively
1.  Cognitive Skills.

For many, though not all, one has to be smart and bright to lead effectively. Why? There is a lot of information to process and speed has value. There is uncertainty and ambiguity in the data. It’s rare to know everything you would like to know. One has to fill in the blanks to solve problems and make decisions and has to be able to estimate what is not yet known. A special sub-cognitive skill is sense-making or pattern analysis. Grasping conceptual complexity matters, to be able to understand the intricate ways things fit together when numerous abstract concepts are involved. Systems thinking matters. In total, these cognitive skills strongly support analysis, decision-making, creativity, innovation and change.

How much cognitive skill? Does the role include Quantum Mechanics or does the organization sell construction materials? Is it ten million transistors on a chip or truck tires? Regardless, in many cases the need for cognitive skills is quite high.

2.  Motivation.

Leading requires aspirations to succeed. A burning desire to achieve.  Putting in the time. Less work/life balance means making personal and family sacrifices.   Health management may be challenging. The amount of energy needed is high and contagious, as passion from the leader transmits to the people. All leaders need motivation.

3.  Learning Agility.

Future leaders bring to work a portfolio of KSAs–Knowledge, Skills, Attributes and Abilities–as well as exposures and experiences. It’s not enough to lead effectively at the top, as nobody starts there. Over a career, additional lessons of life, work, managing and leadership have to be learned and integrated into the growing behavioral portfolio. The leadership attributes have to be built. Learning agility and a personal growth mindset means learning a lot, and quickly. It’s lifelong learning. It’s curiosity, openness, risk-taking, listening and observing. How much of these elements have to be represented in the KSA quiver? It’s situational and contextual, yet learning agility clearly matters which is why it has been a key component to verifying true high potentials.

4.  Leveraging Others.

Leaders need to leverage others up, down, sideways, inside and outside the organization to get great things done. They have to have influencing habits and skills. To do that, they need to be able to read self and others. Once accurately read, they have to manage and influence individually. An effective leader cannot be a one-trick pony. Think about how far a charismatic-only approach goes with a group of technical engineers (Hint: it falls flat quickly as they want data!). An effective leader needs to be a student of people, through innate and developed EQ skills. How good with people does one need to be? Again, it depends. Some leaders have few people to influence, others have 100s of thousands around the globe.

5. and 6.  Team Building and Delegation.

There is a magic leadership bullet: One’s mindset towards Team Building and Delegation. Although Leaders are held responsible for a lot, it doesn’t mean they have to do it all themselves. Most effective leaders specialize (are known for/are best at) in one of the three accountability clusters: strategy, operations or people.

These “magic bullets” take self-awareness and humility–knowing what you are good at and in what scenarios you might benefit from help. So, great leaders do what they are good at and surround themselves with excellence in the other two areas. They are held responsible that everything gets done well but there is no expectation that they do everything personally, though many will try.

7.  Self-Awareness.

Add self-awareness to THE list, which leads to team building and the generous use of delegation.

Here is a helpful leader’s checklist: what is my true personal profile against the three responsibility clusters?  What am I responsible for that is not comfortably accounted for in my KSA quiver?  What could I use help on?  Who can I add to my team that I could trust for support with light guidance from me?  Who is better at “X” than I am?

The actual research shows that most top leadership jobs have a mission critical list that is between 13 and 15 skills, depending upon the situation. Leaders who have the magic bullet mindset for team building and delegation only have to be good at 5-to-7 of the 13-to-15 skills. The rest covered is by the team.

Leaders who try to do it all have to be good at all 13-to-15. We haven’t met a leader who can pull this off.

OK, so there is THE Leadership Attributes list, of sorts.
  • Cognitive Skills
  • Learning Agility
  • Motivation
  • People Leveraging Skills
  • Self-awareness
  • Team Building
  • Delegation

Evaluate yourself and your leaders against these essential leadership attributes. How do you stack up and what do you need to do next?

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