In the age of perpetual information, every decision a business leader makes today can end up in the public spotlight. The qualities of a good leader today and in the decades to come must walk in lockstep with a shift from finance and shareholder value, to the wider implications of business decisions on an array of stakeholders: the customer, employees, communities, and wider society.
What does that mean for the qualities of a good leader? What traits will remain relevant, what traits will need to be learned and continuously assessed? And how do you acquire them?
In a Harvard Business Review article, The 6 Fundamental Skills Every Leader Should Practice, co-authors Ron Ashkenas and Brook Manville explain that the best way to adroitly develop leadership competencies is through practice and real experience.
That’s all good and well, but what are the qualities a good leader needs to acquire?
Robert Kelley, distinguished service professor of management at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, thinks leaders need to become less the hero, and more the hero maker.
“Great leaders understand that their followers or subordinates do most of the work,” he explains. “So, great leaders focus on developing all their people into star performers who out-perform and out-produce average performers by a high multiple.”
When that performance margin appears, great leaders will then give the credit to the star performers who accomplished the goals.
“By turning their followers or subordinates into the heroes, they build a strong bond with those folks who will appreciate the investment and generosity of the leader.”
Be a good person
Decency, that’s what it takes to be a leader, thinks Bill Boulding, dean of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. And it's one of the ways leadership is changing.
Bill penned an article in Harvard Business Review last year, For Leaders, Decency Is Just as Important as Intelligence, in which he explained that successful leaders today and in the coming decades must possess ‘triple-threat leadership capability’.
That’s a combination of a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ), emotional intelligence (EQ), and decency quotient (DQ).
“DQ implies a person has not only empathy for employees and colleagues but also the genuine desire to care for them,” Bill writes in the piece.
“DQ means wanting something positive for everyone in the workplace and ensuring everyone feels respected and valued.”
Dan Price, the CEO of Gravity Payments, showed just that when, in 2015, he announced he was going to pay all his staff a minimum wage of $70,000, what he deemed enough to live a normal life. The raises were partly funded by his decision to cut his own $1.1 million salary to the same amount.
Fairer pay is a controversial issue and one that often strikes at the heart of worker dissatisfaction. According to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the average CEO of an S&P 500 Index company made 361 times more money than the average worker at their company in 2017—leaders with a strong decency quotient will realize the importance of rewarding their staff and not alienating them with their own through-the-roof salaries.
It goes beyond just the workplace too. Leaders with DQ, says Bill, understand their decisions aren’t solely about profitability, but affect hundreds, thousands, or even millions of lives.
Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn who’s set to step down from his role later in 2020, finds time for meditation every morning. A tweet from 2016 revealed his morning routine. Jeff wakes at 5:30am, clears his inbox, reads the news, works out, meditates, and then has breakfast. Finding time for reflection is a key trait all leaders need.
A working paper, Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning, published by Bradley Staats of University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano of Harvard Business School, and Giada Di Stefano of Bocconi University, found that reflection is tantamount to performance growth.
Part of their research at a tech-support call center of Wipro, a global IT, consulting, and outsourcing company in India, required some workers to spend the last 15 minutes of each day reflecting on and writing about the lessons they had learned that day.
Those workers, when compared with another group who continued to work for that 15 minutes, performed on average more than 20% better.
Being at the top it can feel like constant action is required, but in the same way Robert Kelley believes leaders should take a step back and credit their ‘heroes’, they should also take a step back and find time for personal reflection.
A willingness to learn
The pace of change in organizations and the speed at which technology is changing how leaders need to approach problems means a willingness to learn about leading is tantamount to success at the top.
Bill Gates believes reading is essential to success. The cofounder and former CEO of Microsoft reads around 50 books a year, on an eclectic mix of subjects, to keep him abreast of the latest global trends.
Nora Grasselli, program director at ESMT Berlin, adds that as a leader you also need to incite feedback, find ways to experiment with new and improved ways of leading, and learn about the kinds of leadership that create value in different contexts.
“Achieving this requires continuous curiosity, an ability to listen, humbleness to accept feedback, a playful attitude to experiment with new leadership practices, and awareness of the interaction between organizational and business dynamics in the given setting.”
Set the example
Tessa Melkonian, associate professor of organizational behaviour and management at emlyon business school, says that all good leaders adopt the same behavior they expect from their subordinates.
“In the face of a fast-changing environment, employees are consistently faced with the need to acquire new skills, however, they may hesitate to make such changes if they doubt that they will be acknowledged or valued by their management,” she explains.
“If managers are exemplary (i.e. they adopt the behaviors they request from their subordinates), then they will encourage employee adaptability and new learning by observing and working alongside them.”
By doing this, managers are positioning themselves as part of the team and not above it. That means when they have to exert their authority, says Tessa, they still share the same constraints and efforts as their team.
Learn from experience
Good leaders will explore how best to navigate business challenges, how to contribute strongly in management teams, and will draw on expert technical or management knowledge, their own or that of others.
That’s according to Karin King, a fellow in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics (LSE). What they may not do, she adds, is to closely understand their own leadership competence as a dynamic practice.
“That requires the leader to continue to seek and apply insight derived from experience and feedback to continue to actively ‘cultivate’ their leadership practice of excellence.”
A leader without emotional intelligence won’t be able to navigate today’s interdependent, global workforce.
Emotional intelligence can encompass the empathetic approach you have to leading your team, or the attachment you form with your customer base.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, tweeted a thanks in 2017 to everyone who had bought a Tesla when experts predicted the company would fail. He also paid testament to his team, and the ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ that had gone into the creating the cars.
Brian Lowery, the Walter Kenneth Kilpatrick professor of organizational behavior, and associate dean for academic affairs at Stanford Graduate School of Business, explains emotional intelligence is a key trait for any leader who wants to have a strong impact on others.
“Self-aware leaders that consider others' perspectives, are willing to be appropriately vulnerable and practice open communication, can transcend their own experience to truly understand and shape the effect they have on others.”