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Think of great business leaders, and Henry Ford, Madame C.J. Walker, Andrew Carnegie, Estée Lauder and Steve Jobs may come to mind. Regardless of when they rose to prominence, all were not only effective leaders but visionaries and disruptors whose innovative ideas took their companies to new levels and defined their respective industries. When considering the accomplishments of luminaries who exemplify effective leadership, what I find interesting is that beyond the obvious (intelligence, discipline, work ethic), certain characteristics span culture, industries, and even time.
More than one road to leadership
First, while there are some (Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, for example) for whom leadership was their destiny, I also believe that effective leaders are not necessarily born as such. They can be made through desire, hard work and preparation. Some are fortunate enough to access the management track early on; growth comes quickly with the guidance of mentors who provide real-world context after years of business school theory.
Others become accomplished leaders in a nonlinear fashion, leapfrogging their way up by sheer tenacity and a willingness to go wherever the opportunity presents itself and gaining essential experience and lessons along the way. Though there are multiple paths to becoming an effective leader, all roads seem to intersect at several behaviors, attitudes and characteristics that the best leaders exhibit. Moreover, many of these traits focus not on business capability but human virtues.
Effective leaders are often described as:
Effective leaders genuinely enjoy recognizing employees rather than bask alone in the spotlight. They understand the need to trust others and delegate authority, giving decision-makers room to fly. They’ll gladly share credit for a job well done and are eager to convey lessons learned and best practices honed over the years in order to pay it forward.
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Effective leaders prepare thoroughly for the decisions and duties they must undertake yet are never content with what they already know. They thirst for greater knowledge and remain open to learning new things, receptive to new ideas and methods (including how to improve their performance).
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Effective leaders respect the bottom line yet never lose sight of the people responsible for delivering it. When leaders demonstrate active listening, employees feel they are being heard and understood and valued and respected on a personal and professional level. And when great joy or sorrow befalls one of their own, efficient leaders empathize and don’t begrudge employees the time they need to process major life events.
Related: The Art of Active Listening Requires Leaving Your Ego Behind
Company culture and employee behavior reflect the attitude at the top. Efficient leaders walk the talk in every way, and employees emulate those cultural cues on everything from embracing casual wear to their commitment to corporate social responsibility; feeling secure to take earned vacation in an always-busy environment without fear of being considered “not a team player”; being willing to speak truth to power without fear of retaliation: or recognizing that pursuit of the unicorn known as work/life balance may occasionally mean that a five-year-old playing dress-up is in the background on your team’s Zoom call.
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Regardless of their position, influential leaders don’t let ego separate them from their staff, literally or figuratively. No task is beneath them, and they’ll roll up their sleeves to toil alongside anyone when the chips are down to get the job done. You’ll see them on the elevator, where they’ll often be the first to say hello. They remain accessible and approachable, even going so far as to share their email and encourage employees to reach out should a work situation arise.
Related: Everyday Leadership Starts with Hello
Effective leaders praise publicly at every opportunity yet dole corrections privately when needed. Nobody gets thrown under the bus, and any failure to reach a goal or milestone begins with leaders asking themselves, “What could I have done better to help my team achieve a different outcome?” Employees will walk through fire for a boss who has their back.
Effective leaders become legends that live forever
Some leaders became legendary for their ability to create a single-mindedness of purpose among a group of disparate individuals. Many are sports leaders and coaches like Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi and Nick Saban. Others are CEOs of anything from small firms to large corporations. Whether the business is a household name or one of the numerous unknown companies comprising the U.S. economy, such leaders are remembered with pride and nostalgia long after they’ve retired.
It’s evident that their actions were motivated by sincerity, not strategy. As a result, employees often speak with satisfaction and reverence that they served under that leader’s term, considering that time the company’s “golden age.” The leaders joyfully embodied what the company represented; their passion, pride and enthusiasm for the job were even contagious.
Great leadership is everywhere
Over the years, I’ve seen influential leaders in their element, finding a way forward and inviting everyone along for the ride. Whether that element was the boardroom or the breakroom, or the leader was 26 or 62, their ability to engage others to work effectively as a group toward a goal by exhibiting the characteristics outlined above was unmistakable. If you are on your own leadership journey, by all means, blaze your trail, make your mark, and look to others who have arrived at where you want to go — but along the way, enhance your own potential by honoring these heart-minded virtues at the core of your approach.
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