There is an abundance of literature and points of view on the subject of leadership, and the topic is a subject of many conversations within organizations. I, for one, have forever been motivated by a single notion, which is leadership by example. Over the years, I have spent considerable time thinking this matter through and digging into its less obvious layers. While one can focus on a variety of aspects, five areas stood out for me.
Integrity is a critical component of capable leadership. Without it, an organization operates without a moral compass. It serves much more than a guide through every journey or challenge; it is the very oxygen that enables life. Without it, environments turn toxic and distrust takes hold. Furthermore, it is a source of pride for people to work for someone who is above reproach, especially when principles get tested along the way, and they often do. Integrity is foundational and the trait on which one builds. It is also important because it creates gravitational confidence that helps steer people through tough choices and difficult decisions. More than any other leadership attribute, integrity is an always-on default with no other alternative setting.
Capability and Competence
If there is an area that serves as hygiene for leadership, capability and competence would be it. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that the leader should know and be able to do everything- and they won’t, but they need to be good at what they do. This involves doing things uncommonly well and acts as a constant reminder of merit; an earned position and qualifier that continuously reinforces why people should look up to, follow and emulate the person in charge. Capability and competence are not just about ably doing a job, they are also about helping people do things better by providing a continuously clear standard for people to work towards. This is not something that someone in a leadership position can preach without convincingly practicing.
Empathy is such a valuable quality in any human being, but a prerequisite for a leader. A leader without empathy is like a bull in a china shop- they will leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Empathetic leadership perhaps needs to start with the ability to identify the difficulties and challenges people have, understanding them and having the sensitivity to sincerely express and convincingly demonstrate that comprehension. Empathy needs to start with insight but requires capable communication to channel back understanding as it creates a bridge between two parties. Empathy in a leader goes an exceptionally long way in steadying people and motivating them, in creating strong bonds, in building loyalty and affinity, in creating a spirit of camaraderie and constructing a culture that no compensation benefit can compete with.
Vulnerability may be an acquired trait for many leaders and- admittedly- may require time to develop. For leaders who are uncomfortable showing vulnerability, moving forward requires major brain rewiring. Some aspects of it may come more quickly and naturally, such as accepting fallibility and recognizing when one is wrong; others may require more work, such as acknowledging the feeling of powerlessness in the face of apparently insurmountable pressures. But once the armor of stoicism is chipped away and vulnerability is manifested, a virtuous cycle providing affectionate support is established. Interestingly, vulnerability in leadership is a paradox: we view our leaders as superheroes, but we also want them to be human. Vulnerability makes leadership three-dimensional, human and more effective.
Inspiration is in a league of its own and enables leaders to project far and wide. A leader who is unable to inspire is significantly hampered. Surprisingly, some leaders mistake inspiration for lecturing and talking at people. Inspiration is like sunlight- it allows people and organizations to blossom. Inspiration’s journey may meander as the leader works with one rough diamond after another and moves from one lost battle to the next. With hindsight, a leader may be able to see their impact through people’s achievements; through building people up and showing them a way forward especially when none appears; through demonstrating that there is hope and a path to it, especially in the most adverse of times. I have never ceased to wonder how powerful inspiration is in helping people achieve their potential, even when they couldn’t see it themselves.
It is said that when the work of an effective leader is done, people say it happened naturally. Such is the power of leadership. The makings of leadership require self-awareness and conscious, sustained work. Those that cultivate its precepts are worthy of our respect and trust, but those that don’t and remain immune to such immutable tenets are a handicap.