01 September 2014

Qualities of Enduring Leadership

"Character is the firm foundation stone upon which one must build to win respect. Just as no worthy building can be erected on a weak foundation, so no lasting reputation worthy of respect can be built on a weak character."
— R. C. Samsel

A recent Google search on “leadership” turned up 173 million results.    


The right kind of leadership makes a substantial difference in organizations big and small. The wrong leaders, even well-intended, can often do damage in ways that are nearly impossible to repair. It may be easier to find leadership on the Internet than on the job. Being a consistently effective leader is hard work and the right leaders are always in short supply.         

Could anything be bigger than leadership?
A Google search of “group purpose” generated 757 million pages--that's 584 million more results than "leadership."
It was an author and Carnegie Foundation president, John W. Gardner, who suggested leadership is really a sub-topic of “group purpose.” If true, that should cause those responsible for the hiring process to first examine "why" an organization exists before filling executive and management positions. Then, to the extent possible, find a close match between purpose and people. 
Attractive attributes
Earlier this year we were asked to identify significant attributes of leaders from more than four decades in business. Along with the basic skills for running an organization (i.e., communication, marketing, finance, HR), here’s a list of qualities found among those who have functioned well inside a purpose greater than their own:
Depth of character and personal integrity. If businesses have character and integrity it’s because their leaders have it, first. Trust is born of good character and relationships are built on trust. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that character is "cumulative." This thought explains Emerson's idea:
"The force of character is the effect of good decisions. As we display good character, we improve our character--that is to say that the results of our good decisions reinforce our behavior and make us even better people. The force of poor character is equally cumulative. That is when we make bad decisions...the impact of those decisions makes our character decline."

Those we've come to admire withstand the tests of time through hallmarks of personal and professional endeavors. They strive for consistent, not perfect, behavior such as keeping their word and telling the truth, both building blocks of one's reputation.

Self-aware and self-controlled.  A great leader is first a leader in their own life. Those who sustain success do so out of practiced personal and professional self-discipline. Underscore the word practiced.
“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  Aristotle said that.
It’s important to learn to manage oneself. Self-discipline sets you apart from an undisciplined crowd. Being self-aware reduces the chances of self-deception which is the greatest deception of all.
Life-long learners. Achievers are curious individuals. They pursue knowledge and have an interest in ideas other than their own. Learning, growing, and changing are requisites of leadership. Adapting is essential for personal and professional development.  

Inexperienced leaders tend to borrow their success from others. Seasoned leaders own their success through learnings gleaned from the right experiences.    
They make decisions. It’s not enough to be decisive. A leader has to know what to be decisive about. An experienced leader knows how to move past the noise to make tough decisions that are in the best interests of the business. Those gifted with wisdom know what they don't know, a display of humility. Yet even with input from others, the final call usually rests with those at the top.  

Do CEOs make mistakes? Of course. But they generally don't make the same mistakes twice.   
Able to manage as well as lead. In business, one has to lead and manage. While leadership is about inspiration and the future, managing has to do with getting things done; delegating responsibility and authority; and working with and through others.  
The better corporate leadership programs wait to see how individuals manage people, budgets, and communications before inviting them to participate in some form of executive education.
One more thing
They know when to exit. Actors are trained when to go on and when to come off the stage. Maybe leaders should enroll in the same course. Those we've observed that get it mostly right plan their departures, when possible, and have something to go to next.
Different circumstances contribute to a voluntary exit--and some exits are involuntary. While work is seldom finished, the reasons behind a leader’s exit include but are not limited to achieving what they set out to do; having a well-qualified successor in place; recognizing the onset of emotional and physical fatigue.
Timing is everything--for leadership and the group purpose it serves.

(C) Bredholt & Co.