The saying goes that employees don’t quit their jobs, they quit their managers. And a recent Gallup poll suggests that there’s some truth to it.
So it follows that the better the manager, the more willing employees are to stick around and do great work. But what does a good leader look like? And how can they keep their teams motivated and enthusiastic?
Let’s take a look at 10 must-have characteristics of a good leader.
First and foremost, a good leader needs to be able to build trust in their people and throughout the organization—trust in their character as well as in their vision. This is absolutely paramount. If your people don’t trust or are skeptical about your vision, they’re not going to put in the effort needed to make it a reality.
So how do you go about doing that? Building trust is all about being honest with your team members, whether it’s about expectations, outcomes, performance, or otherwise. With trust and integrity comes respect, which is integral to inspiring action among your team members.
A good leader needs to see themself as the embodiment of these qualities. Why? Because honesty is contagious. Be an exemplary force for trustworthiness and integrity and your team will follow your lead.
2. Articulates purpose and goals
Building trust is often about clearly articulating where you stand and your reasons for taking that stance.
In the workplace, leaders are often communicating goals and objectives to their teams. But if goals are too abstract or begin to resemble orders rather than meaningful tasks or objectives, your people won’t feel invested enough to adopt them as their own. Instead, the unexplained goals seem more like targets that don’t really add up to much.
A good leader needs to break down these objectives by explaining what they mean for the team, the organization, and the business. Some will of course be more straightforward than others.
But one method of inspiring your team is to get them thinking about the bigger picture: the why.
Why is it even a goal to begin with? Be as clear and open as possible about the why.
This not only inspires confidence and trust in the leader’s vision, but it also helps develop an atmosphere of transparency throughout the organization. Your teams will be privy to and have a stake in decisions made in board meetings, which gives them a sense of ownership and makes them feel like part of a cohesive whole.
3. Exemplifies the culture
As a leader your primary job is to ensure your team is on task and doing their best to achieve your vision. Leaders need to support their people. But they also need to keep in mind that they’re in a position that makes them cultural representatives of the whole organization.
What does this mean exactly? Leaders, especially C-suite executives, are looked to for guidance on how to act, how to behave, and whether or not they’re true to their espoused values, as well as to the company’s.
In short, they’re the company’s culture champions whether they’re aware of it or not. They’re on display for all to see, and the manner in which they act has an influence on how employees view the company… and their own role within it.
A good leader is self-aware enough to recognize and understand this, and acts accordingly. They live the company’s core values in their professional lives and contribute to a healthy company culture as best as they can.
4. Recognizes accomplishments
One way of living and promoting organizational culture is to recognize and acknowledge your people’s accomplishments, both publicly and materially. Reward your employees and then put that on blast to the rest of the organization.
Promotions, lateral moves, team changes, restructures, employees taking on more responsibilities, doing exceptional work, etc.—make sure the whole organization knows when people are achieving goals and progressing in their careers.
This gives the rest of the company a chance to extend their own congratulations, as well as something to aspire to in their own roles. A good leader understands that good news for one employee is generally good news for the rest of their people, too.
This is among the most important characteristics of a good leader. An empathetic leader is:
Knowledgeable about common causes of workplace stress
Aware that an employee’s performance is contingent on several factors, some public and others private
Respectful of privacy and confidentiality
Exercises a zero tolerance policy that immediately shuts down any gossip, bullying, racism, sexism, misogyny, ableism coming from their team, colleagues, and senior managers
Always ready to defend their team members
Aware that each team member is different, and evaluates performance subjectively
Being an empathetic leader promotes a culture of empathy and makes your people know that you value them to such an extent that you want to understand where they’re coming from.
6. Admits when they don’t have all the answers
As a leader, your natural inclination is to, well, lead. You want to inspire your people to follow you and your vision.
But what’s often misunderstood about the leader-follower relationship is the idea that the leader possesses some innate knowledge about the best possible course of action at all times, and could never be wrong. And that the followers, your team, don’t.
Getting into this type of mindset is one of the worst mistakes an otherwise good leader can make. And reinforcing it only means you’ll eventually find yourself surrounded by yes-men and sycophants who are too afraid to voice dissent or steer you down the correct path.
A good leader is self-aware about their strengths and weaknesses. And because of that, they encourage debate, open discussion, feedback, and promote an atmosphere of professional disagreement. In short, a good leader is eager to be held accountable and readily admits when they’re wrong or have made a mistake.
That said, as a leader you should be as up to date as possible on the trends, research, innovations, technology, and advancements in your field or area of expertise.
If you’re a marketing manager, for example, it benefits you, your team, and your company if you’re incredibly well-versed in what’s going on in the marketing world. You should be doing research constantly, listening to podcasts, brushing up on the competition, reading books and articles, attending and presenting at conferences, you name it.
Being an expert in your field doesn’t give you leeway to always be right, but it definitely makes you a valuable resource for your team. If they have a question, you’re there.
And if you don’t know the answer off-hand, you’ll find out as soon as possible. A good leader is always in research mode as a means of supporting their team.
8. Trusts their people’s expertise
A good leader is also self-assured and confident in their abilities. More importantly, though, they’re confident in the abilities of their team members. Delegating and empowering your team to succeed relies heavily on your confidence level in their work and expertise.
As a great leader you're willing to defer to a team member’s expertise if you don’t know the answer to a question, eager to make room for other opinions, and always able to back down from an argument. A leader should strive for and exercise humility.
Once you build up trust in your team's abilities, you won’t need to spend much time making sure they're meeting goals. A good leader avoids micromanaging like the plague.
9. Communicates effectively
Exceptional communicators are not super articulate word geniuses. Do they speak and write well? Yeah, sure. But more importantly, they recognize that their mode of communication depends on their audience.
A good leader communicates effectively by thinking about who they’re communicating with, and adapting accordingly. A leader needs to be especially adept at communicating because their job is so dependent on inspiring people with their words and actions. Using your words effectively leads directly to better results.
10. Demonstrates commitment
The best leaders are committed and passionate about their vision, and are able to share that passion with their teams. Sometimes this characteristic comes so naturally that it’s almost effortless. For others, it requires more effort.
If you’re just as committed to your vision, but it’s just not getting through to your people, then it may be time to spend some time emphasizing your commitment with your team in mind. After all, they’re the ones that need to be convinced if you want to inspire action and make progress.
A good leader is constantly reminding their people, through their words and actions, about their commitment to their vision and the goals in place to help achieve it. This is good for morale and absolutely crucial to sustaining the health of the organization.
There are so many ways to be an effective, inspiring leader in the modern workplace. But perhaps the most important mindset you can have is to think of your people not as subordinates or followers, but as talented members of the same team. You’re there to support them, and they’re there to support your vision. A great leader recognizes this and a great team admires them for it.
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