Three Traits That Make Top Leaders Great

Editor’s NoteReaders sometimes ask about past TLNT articles, so every Friday we republish a Classic TLNT post.

What makes the top leaders stand out is not their skills or experience.

Once you get to compete for the top jobs, everyone has impressive skills and lots of relevant experience. So how do you differentiate?

It’s also not just about execution. Execution is critical, for sure. Yes, you need to be able to set a compelling agenda and deliver on it, but again, that’s entry stakes — it doesn’t make you great.

Where is the greatness?

The higher up you go, your value as a leader is associated more with who you are as a person, than with your skills.

I’ve noticed that there are  three (3) traits that the best leaders have.

  1. They are who they are.
  2. They communicate well.
  3. They pick the right people and make them great.

1. Great Leaders are who they are

They are people whose words and actions match what they genuinely think and feel on the inside. This is, sadly, pretty rare.

Egos, agendas, fear, and politics all pull on us to say and do things that we don’t quite believe, but serve to please others, smooth things out, or defend ourselves. Most people cave in to this pressure.

The best leaders stick to their values: They say and do what they really feel and think. They bring the core of who they really are to work, and they talk about what really matters to them. When you see a leader behaving this way it obvious that they are being authentic. It’s not hard to spot. You can’t fake it.

You can fake opinions or positions, but you can’t fake authenticity!

This authenticity builds trust and and makes people eager to follow.

2. They communicate well

The best leaders communicate well, consistently, often, and to everyone. They invite people in. They let people know what is going on. And to the first point, they tell people what they really think.

One-to-one communication: Great leaders listen.

They don’t just go through the act of listening, they listen with active curiosity because they are genuinely interested in learning the other person’s point of view.

Execs that go through the act of listening, but don’t actually respect the people they are listening to, nor really care to understand the opinions they are hearing, may get some leadership points for the show, but they are not connecting and they are not learning.

Group communications: A steady heartbeat of communications from the top lets people know that you are there, and that you are engaged. What you say is almost less important than the fact that you commit yourself to saying it on a regular schedule.

Communicate every week or two without fail. You will score huge leadership points with steady, quality communications.

When people feel in the loop, they are much more motivated, less worried, and more productive, and they consider you to be a better leader than someone they seldom hear from.

Persuasiveness: Great leaders are persuasive. You don’t need to be a world class public speaker to be a good communicator. You need to understand people and how to persuade them. That is why listening and learning helps.

Persuasive communications light the path you are asking people to travel, and sell the reasons why they should go with you. The best leaders do this all the time.

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3. They pick the right people and make them great

The right people: There is nothing more important to effective leadership than to build a team underneath you that is so capable, that you can free yourself up to solve higher order problems.

I will repeat that for emphasis. This is really key!

There is nothing more important to effective leadership than to build a team underneath you that is so capable, that you can free yourself up to solve higher order problems.

Don’t cover for a weak team: If you are personally stepping in to do the work because you have weak spots (people on your team not capable or motivated enough to step up to do more) then you are holding yourself back as a leader. And you are failing to deliver enough value to your business.

Make them great: Hire stars, give them big work, support them, and let them excel. Help them be amazing. Create an environment where the team works really well, and the individuals can grow to solve bigger problems over time too.

Why this works

I used to wonder why I was so lucky to always have such remarkable, talented, experienced people want to work for me. What I finally realized is that it was two things:

First, I picked the right people for the right jobs so they could work where they have natural strengths and really thrive in their work. And second, I gave them the room and support to stretch beyond their current capabilities.

So the magic of why they wanted to work for me was that they felt respected and they could be proud of their work. They got to personally achieve more than they knew they could, and got recognized for it.

People like to be amazing and they like to be recognized for it.

In contrast, other bosses did not respect and maximize their gifts and give them the opportunity and support to be amazing.

This feels almost too good to be true, because you end up getting the best people and they move mountains for you. And all you need to do is show them trust and respect and get things out of their way.

I guess the hard part comes along if you feel threatened by great people (see also, How to hire a star, and Are you smarter than me? which talk more about this, and have some great reader comments too).

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .

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