This article was originally published in the March 27, 2020 edition of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.
If you Google the words “leadership qualities” you will find no shortage of entries. But rather than open those links and write about what others have to say, I decided to offer observations based on my own experience.
Show Empathy. This word is little more than a century old, and it has more than one meaning. But you can boil it down to the ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes. Which is not to say that we can always understand what someone else is going through, but if you can put your own opinion, bias, or point of view aside, and recognize that others may see or feel things differently, you are doing what good leaders do.
Listen Closely: Good listening skills are an essential part of leadership because those who have them understand that effective decision making, more often than not, comes from getting information and advice from others. One practical way to improve this skill, despite the fact that it involves touching your face, is to use your thumb and index finger to pinch your lips together. Another, and perhaps safer, way is to adopt a self-imposed rule: Speak last.
Be Patient: “Act in haste, repent at leisure,” as the expression goes. Sometimes leaders have no choice but to make quick decisions and hope for the best. But in the usual case there is time. The words “I’ll sleep on it” are often the right ones.
Pay Attention to Detail: It is all well and good to see the world from 30,000 feet, but a good leader must be willing to dig in, ask questions, and learn about the subject at hand. This quality is the opposite of “following one’s gut,” though some successful leaders claim to be doing just that. More likely, they have studied the facts and the available options and only then decided whether the original instinct was the right way to go.
Delegate Responsibility: Good leaders take their turn when it comes to standing guard at night, but effective leadership means an ability to delegate responsibility. “I’ll do it myself,” or “Only I can do it” are recipes for bad outcomes. Besides, delegating real responsibility is the best way to turn members of the team into stakeholders.
Share the Credit / Take the Blame: Leaders should share the credit because it’s the right thing to do, and it instills a sense of commitment and a willingness to work even harder. The other side of the coin is taking the blame when things go wrong, for at least two reasons. One is that the failure of leadership may have contributed to the unhappy outcome. The other is that it may not be any one person’s fault, or for that matter anyone’s fault. Sometimes it’s just bad luck. But another day will come, and team members will never forget who had their back. As the sign on President Truman’s desk said, “The buck stops here.”
Use Meetings Effectively: It isn’t enough to have a shared vision. Leaders have no choice but to hold meetings.
- A good leader plans ahead and circulates an agenda in advance whenever possible. Having a written agenda helps keep meetings short, which is always better than long.
- Attendance matters, so a reminder the day before is critical, as is an invitation to those unable to be there to attend by phone.
- A successful meeting is one where many voices are heard, not just those who shout the loudest. A leader shouldn’t call on just one person, for fear that the person will feel picked on or that others will think the leader is playing favorites. But asking for comments from several people, including those on the phone, will ease tensions and help raise the right questions and produce good ideas.
- Meetings don’t exist for their own sake, they are supposed to lead somewhere. So be sure someone keeps a record and, before you adjourn, think about and ask the group what comes next. Since one meeting often leads to another, try and set the next date. And be sure to circulate the minutes to all, including group members who did not attend.
Integrity Matters: This one speaks for itself.
Here is one additional suggestion. Read the book Endurance by Alfred Lansing. It tells the story of Ernest Shackleton’s incredible 1915 voyage to Antarctica. He epitomizes good leadership.