This column is part of Globe Careers’ new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
Leaders are naturally hungry to be at the top of their game, and there’s no shortage of leadership books, coaches and seminars offering advice to get them there.
In my 20-year human resources career, I’ve had the pleasure of working with leaders of all kinds, and I’ve seen some succeed and some fail. The ones who do it well are focused, and they know that leadership is a journey of continuous reflection and improvement. Here are six traits that I’ve consistently observed about leaders who have excelled:
1. Great leaders build complementary teams.
They realize they don’t know it all, and they understand their strengths and shortcomings. The key to their success is filling in those gaps with the people who surround them. The most effective teams include diverse opinions and backgrounds. Members of a diverse team can complement and challenge each other, to bring forward truly strategic and well-rounded perspectives. Leaders must carefully consider the roles on their team, and choose people who have the right styles and abilities to be successful in their individual and team-contributor roles. Some leaders use time-tested personality assessments to understand personal styles and gaps that can be addressed with their people.
2. Great leaders embrace conflict.
Conflict can have many different faces. It can be a short-term crisis, or a longer-term problem to solve. Conflict requires leaders and their teams to stretch beyond the day-to-day into uncomfortable territory. Rather than focusing on how difficult a situation will be, great leaders see conflict as an opportunity for their team to learn and improve. While it may be difficult to get team members to approach conflict with the same mind-set while they’re “in the thick of it,” helping them to reflect afterward can be very effective.
3. Great leaders protect their teams.
A good leader knows when to shield the team from controversy, protect them and keep them focused on the most important tasks. There are also times when a leader needs to step back and allow the team to take a fall. Great leaders encourage risk and forgive mistakes.
4. Great leaders know when to coach and when to lead.
Sometimes a leader will provide firm direction, but when there’s a learning opportunity, good leaders step back and coach their people, helping them get to the right answer by themselves. This can be a difficult concept for many leaders, particularly those who like things done a certain way. However, the long-term benefits are massive because employees feel empowered to think and act for themselves, ultimately alleviating the decision-making burden from their bosses.
5. Great leaders inspect what they expect.
Instead of delivering a mandate and stepping aside, good leaders tend to dig deep and understand whether what they’ve asked for is actually happening and working. The easy path is soliciting feedback and taking it at face value. It requires much more effort to spend the time talking to employees to understand the organization and its people. But that time investment can have a huge payoff because hearing the feedback first-hand provides valuable lessons, and an opportunity to really understand what’s happening.
6. Great leaders care.
Good leaders care about their people, not just about the business.
Some of these traits are inherent, but all can be learned. Leaders looking to improve can seek out other leaders in their organizations or within their network to act as peer coaches. But, for the most part, these traits simply require leaders to pause and reflect on their leadership style, and to be honest with themselves about what they really need to do differently to improve.
I’ve noticed that the best leaders plan time every week to reflect on how they led through different situations, and how they could do it more effectively in the future. They also spend time looking at their calendar and considering how they may be required to lead through different situations in the coming week, so they can think and plan ahead. For ad hoc situations, leaders may need to take a step back and listen to what’s being presented, and consider the best approach before reacting. It’s easy for emotions to get in the way, but as role models for their teams, leaders react with their head while keeping their hearts in check.
In most cases, great leaders aren’t necessarily presidents or CEOs; they’re simply people who are self-aware and have a desire to be effective in their role. Leadership doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and it can’t be learned overnight. To be successful as a leader, you must approach it as a long-term journey of continuous reflection and improvement.
Dave Moncur is vice-president of human resources at PepsiCo Foods Canada (@PepsiCanada).