January 2017: What Makes a Good Leader?
(This post was written by Donald Turner, board member of PMI SWMO - VP of Programs. If you are interested in writing a blog post for our site, you can earn 2 PDUs for doing so. To learn more, contact the VP of Communications at [email protected])
That's the age old question, isn’t it? Or rather, what are the characteristics of a good leader? This question has been asked in the business world probably more than any other single question out there. Why? Because good leaders are respected, admired, and more than anything else, they are successful. You don't have to be the CEO of General Electric or Google, for example, to be a leader. In fact, that may be part of the mystic of being a truly good leader. Leaders may or may not be in a leadership position, depending upon the opportunities that they have had, and experience has taught me that you can meet a leader anywhere at any time. They may be a housewife, the guy next door, the Administrative Assistant or the person who dutifully shows up to work every day, gets the job done and goes home.
I've been intrigued by this question for a number of years and naturally, you can get about as many different (and muddled) opinions as the number of people you ask. I've read books, listened to Pod-Casts, watched DVD's, performed interviews and assessed people in high business positions. The people I have researched have included CEO's, civic leaders, business owners, ministers, teachers, mothers, fathers, Presidents, pilots, U.S. Navy Seals, and the list goes on and on. After all this research and many life experiences, I've come to several conclusions. One conclusion is that, although I wouldn't consider finding a good leader as a rare event, I wouldn't say you can find a good leader every day of your life either. The other conclusion that I have come to is that the people whom I have considered good leaders seem to have several common traits or characteristics, whether they be in the business world, community service or even in everyday life. These traits transcend gender, race, age, and even educational levels and like other aspects of our lives, these traits can be partly inherited, but to the greatest extent I believe they are learned behaviors (I will give you my rationale for this opinion a little later).
Why is this the age old question? And why is it important to us? Because people want to know what makes good leaders so that those traits can be identified and practiced. Just because a person is a leader doesn't mean they have authority over us, in fact, they may not even be in the same company, geographic area or even generation, but they have attributes which persuade us to follow them. They persuade us to follow them because good leaders influence those around them, no matter what level of authority they have. That is what being a good leader is all about, one's ability to positively influence others to perform. And why is that important to us? Well, if you're in business that answer should be obvious, but how is that important to project leaders or managers? Because project leaders are often tasked to reach project goals with little or no real authority over the project team members or stakeholders, depending on how your organization is set up. That's right! A project manager should be above all things a good leader! Good leaders set the example, they step forward, they restart the dialog when an impasse arises, and they gravitate to problems in their sphere of influence to alleviate the situation, not shrink from them. Now, here's my rationale for understanding why leaders are made, not born. Real leaders have characteristics that we respect, admire and desire to emulate, and when we emulate these traits over and over it becomes what? A habit? A routine? Yes! We become what we want to become through learned behaviors and habit forming. Such is the mentoring process because the mentee is supposed to learn from the mentor.
Here are five common and reoccurring traits of good leaders that I have found throughout my research efforts and life experiences. I'm sure that many of these traits were learned in the school of "hard knocks" by more than one leader, but they are lessons well learned. Some are quite lofty aspirations that may seem unattainable at first and oftentimes you will fall short, but determination is the key.
Humility, this is the rarest of leadership qualities and one of the rarest traits in human nature. It is a hard thing to take a look at ourselves introspectively and evaluate our self, honestly and accurately. It seems almost human nature to exaggerate one's own self-importance, capabilities and knowledge. Indeed, having too much pride is a dangerous trait that has destroyed kings and paupers alike. History is rift with people who have found out the hard way that humbling yourself is much more effacing than being humbled by something else. Every leader knows that the greater good is served by teamwork, and true progress is made only when team members move and band together in a cohesive unit. A good leader will always put the team before herself/himself.
Integrity, another quality which leaders exude. This is a characteristic which according to the latest poll and surveys is woefully lacking amongst politicians, our nation's leaders. *Recent surveys indicate that confidence in our Congressional leaders is at an all-time low. Why? Because voters believe many politicians lack integrity, an essential characteristic of leadership. Political parties aside, this is an absolute "must have" attribute in leaders. Leaders do the right thing when no one is watching, and corporations are becoming more and more adamant about ethics in the workplace. It goes without saying that you will never find a good and trusted leader without impeccable integrity. Who wants to follow someone who displays a lack of ethics or morality which in a sense is poor judgement? Maintain your integrity, it's what allows you to sleep at night, look your colleagues in the eye and without it your self-confidence dwindles like the charge out of a dying battery.
Control, I'm not talking about control of other people, I'm talking about control of oneself. I'm talking about emotional control and maturity. When the pressure reaches the boiling point does your boss fly off the handle, or worse, do you? Have you heard of the "door slamming" type? This is not the individual that you want to spend a lot of time around. Emotionally mature people are in control of themselves at all times and their professional behavior is maintained even when things are not going as planned. The stressful times are what test our mettle, isn't it? I'm not saying leaders don't become angry because they certainly do but it's what's done with that anger that matters. Good decision making is based upon logic not emotions, so one must constantly guard against getting caught up in the moment and risk making impulsive decisions. When leaders find themselves on the edge they may wait an hour and then revisit the situation, that may be enough time to either see things differently or get a better understating of what is going on. Remember, it sometimes takes years for people to build their confidence in your leadership, it can take mere seconds to lose it!
Accountability/ownership, the very nature of being a leader is taking responsibility. When others lack the fortitude or resolve to take responsibility, leaders step forward. They submit ideas and are willing to put themselves out there. Let's face it, the job description of a project manager could read "responsible for the initiation of the project to the closing, and everything in between." That's the nature of the position. Someone wisely said project management isn't for everyone. Accountability and ownership are not just for the leaders or project managers; you must hold team members accountable as well. A leader oftentimes allows team members to work on and out their own problems, which in turn allows them to grow and develop their decision-making skills. When others need help they should be able to ask a leader for support in planning and execution. Managers often try to subjugate subordinates; leaders allow others to thrive and reach their maximum potential. When failures do occur, leaders take the time to go back and discover what went wrong and how it can be prevented from happening the next time.
Communication, leaders are good communicators. They have to be or they could not inspire others to follow them. Good leaders clarify what the goals are, they articulate the plans, and they communicate the end game! But wait! Communication is a two-way transmission of information. A leader is also a good listener! That's right. A good listener gleans information from those with whom they are communicating, thereby making more informed decisions. They say project managers spend 80% of their time communicating and that is most likely not an exaggeration. According to a survey conducted by the Computing Technology Industry Association, the number one reason for IT project failures is due to poor communication, and from what I have seen in other research efforts, communication, or the lack thereof, is the culprit in many other types of project failures. Have you ever wondered when a war breaks out, one side always tries to knock out the other side's communication first? Now you know why! Poor communication is lethal to a project, and good leaders know this. A leader communicates the plans and goes the extra mile to ensure that everyone is working off the same page.
Well, this piece is by no means an exhaustive list of good leadership characteristics, but it is a start. I'm sure you can add to the list and that you have some of your own opinions on what characteristics make a good leader, as well. Remember, good leaders are made, not born. Just like a piano player increases his/her playing skills by playing every day, you too can enhance your leadership skills by practicing.
*Gallup Politics, Americans Confidence in Congress Falls to Lowest On Record - Elizabeth Mendes & Joy Wilke.