Leadership is easy. Okay, not really, but it is easy to define what makes an effective leader. It requires just two things.
Last time we explored the first trait, high moral character. While a leader needs to be a lot of things, above everything sits character. All other great leadership traits – energetic, humble, knowledgeable, trustworthy, and the list goes on – flow from high character.
There is no compromise with character. But what if you do have a momentary lapse in this can’t-have-a-lapse area. Is it possible to rise again as an effective leader? Perhaps, but there’s no guarantee a leader will recover from a slip in character, at least not with the followers who witnessed or experienced the failure. Given time, though, a fallen leader might recover their leadership mojo.
Effective leaders more often need to recover from lesser mistakes. On any given day for any given reason, a leader may “break” an essential leadership trait. Maybe the leader talked harshly to a teammate or embarrassed someone in a team meeting. Maybe the leader caused confusion because of a poor communication, causing strife and angst in the team. Or perhaps the leader took credit for a team’s success or blamed someone else for poor performance rather than taking responsibility.
In any of the above failures, a leader needs our second key leadership trait, transparency.
No leader is perfect. No person is perfect. So mistakes will be made. Hopefully, these mistakes will be in lesser leadership areas such as being empathetic, disciplined, or fair. Regardless of failure, major or minor, a leader must quickly and authentically admit the mistake and apologize for the shortcoming.
Upon displaying a mistake, an effective leader must simply say, “I’m sorry. I did this. I apologize for the pain and confusion my mistake has caused. I will work hard to never do this again.” That’s it. Quick and authentic.
Unfortunately, the world is full of leaders who say, “I’m sorry if this offended or hurt you.” This isn’t an apology. This is saying the other person has the problem. Nor does an apology end with a “but.” As in, “I’m sorry but this is what I meant.”
Transparent does not describe United CEO Oscar Munoz after dragging a passenger off a United flight about a year ago. He was neither quick nor authentic. It took two days and two attempts at an apology before Mr. Munoz finally offered an appropriate response to the traveling public.
In his first two statements, Mr. Munoz said things like United staff treated their passenger “politely” and “apologetically” as they literally dragged him off the plane. He also blamed the passenger, calling him “disruptive and belligerent.” Rather than speaking to the bloodied passenger or the traveling public at large, Mr. Munoz wrote to his employees, “While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you . . . Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are.” Really? Allowing a passenger to be seated and then dragging that passenger off the plane, breaking several teeth in the process, that’s respect and dignity?
In his third statement two days after the incident, Mr. Munoz was finally transparent. “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.” With this third attempt, Mr. Munoz was finally transparent. But after two days and two failed apologies, does this apology really count for anything?
"I think the currency of leadership is transparency."
Of course, transparency isn’t just for apologizing. After the above statement, Mr. Schultz went on to say, “. . . there are moments where you’ve got to share your soul and conscience with people and show them who you are, and not be afraid of it.” So transparency also allows a leader to be “real.” It builds trust. And it helps others be transparent as well.
So think about your leadership. Are you always fair? Empathetic? Humble? Do others describe you as disciplined, flexible, and honest?
Most importantly, do you always display the two most important leadership characteristics, character and transparency?
Or are they the only qualities needed for effective leadership?
There are many skills necessary to be a good leader or supervisor. For example, setting SMART goals is critical for employee engagement and success. Communicating often, holding people accountable, and being skilled at conducting performance review and other challenging conversations are also skills needed to make the "good boss list." Mastering these skills will not only make for an effective leader but also help employees find success and gratification in their daily work activities.
In addition to mastering specific skills, effective leaders must live by and display many qualities. While not an exhaustive list, outstanding leaders must also show these qualities:
Energetic Communicative Knowledgeable
Confident Persistent Honest
Dedicated Creative Caring
Humble Disciplined Passionate
Fair Flexible Humorous
Trustworthy Courageous Empathetic
Yes, that’s quite a list. Is it possible for a leader to be all of these things all of the time? That should certainly be the goal of every leader. There are times, though, when a leader fails to display each of these traits.
For example, on those days when a leader is sick, energy levels may be a bit low. Have a fight with the spouse? You may not feel like laughing at work. Kids go off the rails at school or abuse your parental trust? You may not be flexible at work with your employees (after all, sometimes managing people is much like parenting kids!). Have an accident on your way home from work, laptop crashed, or got beat up by a customer or your own boss? You may not even want to go into the office the next day!
Life happens. When it does, you may be less than your best leader-self. Hopefully, though, it’s just a momentary setback and with a little time, you’re back to your energetic, light-hearted, flexible self.
While each of these leadership characteristics may have some flexibility, there are two characteristics that are not negotiable. Two traits that, when violated, bring your entire leadership and even personal convictions into question. The first of these two traits is high moral character.
Often during leadership workshops, after listing all of the leadership traits above (including character and our second trait we’ll name later), I will ask which two are most important. Things like honest, caring, and trustworthy jump off the lips of most participants. No, no, and no. It takes a while but we finally hit our first key trait, character.
Hold on here. What about honesty and trustworthiness – aren’t they critical characteristics for a leader? Absolutely! But not as critical as being a leader with high character. Why? Because you might be honest but not a caring leader. You may be trustworthy and believable but not humble or persistent.
If, however, a leader has high character, then he/she will also be honest, trustworthy, caring, persistent, . . . You see, everything flows from character!
That’s why character must be uncompromising, because a lack of character ruins leadership ability. In other words, people will forgive a leader who has a low-energy day or sends out a poor communication. But have a lapse of character? Your entire leadership ability will be called into question – for a long time!
Sadly, business history is littered with low-character leaders. Who remembers Bernie Ebbers (Worldcom)? Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco)? Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling (Enron)? Just a few years ago, there were countless Wall Street, bank, and mortgage executives whose greed sent our entire economy into a tailspin. More recently, lack of moral character allowed Wells Fargo to fraudulently set up thousands of fake accounts.
I am both amazed and dismayed that character as a key leadership quality is not a given for some people. Take, for example, Theo Epstein, General Manager of the Chicago Cubs (of which I'm a true fan!).
Mr. Epstein is obviously skilled at building winning baseball teams, winning two World Series with Boston and then again with Chicago. But after years of building teams, it was not until a few years ago that Mr. Epstein figured out that character is important!
After Boston's World Series teams started to disintegrate, Mr. Epstein joined the Cubs and insisted in acquiring "only players with outstanding makeup." He said character was not just important, it was essential to his blueprint of winning another World Series.
At 28 years old, Mr. Epstein was the youngest general manager in baseball history when he took that position with the Boston Red Sox in 2002. Fifteen years later, as President of Operations for the Cubs, he finally realized that character is the most important leadership quality.
So there’s hope! While business still has (and probably always will have) leaders who don’t protect their character and live by the highest standards possible, other leaders can grow and learn like Mr. Epstein. Let’s hope Mr. Epstein’s experience becomes a growing trend!
What do you think? Is character the most important quality? What would you put ahead of character?
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