In my career, I have heard numerous lists of leader qualities and leadership values. I have attended all flavors of leadership training, and seen the true colors of many a leader, both good and bad. The most valuable traits of good leaders are displayed, not preached. After 20 years of military service in the Army Reserve and a handful of civilian office leadership roles supervising diverse groups, I believe I have narrowed it down to four core leader traits.
The old mantra, “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a solution,” has destroyed the morale of more workplaces than I care to count. It’s a management cop-out-obviously. If my troops had a solution, they would simply ask my permission to implement it. A more effective technique is to listen to the problem and then ask, “What is it that you want us to do to resolve this?”
You can listen to ideas all day, but if it’s back to business as usual tomorrow, then congratulations, you’re a bad boss.
A genuine attempt to involve subordinates in the problem-solving process is the mark of a good leader, but most business environments are fluid and things change. Last year, I attempted to change a long-standing practice of rotating duties daily after my team members had voiced concerns over workload challenges. I listened to them, formulated a plan and convinced them to try it for a few weeks.
They hated it, and asked me to return to the old procedure. I agreed, and the team members happily started looking for a different way to address their previous challenges. Knowing when to step in is much easier than knowing when to back down.
This goes beyond the obvious issues of sexual harassment or shenanigans at the annual Christmas party. Whether in the military or at the office, a leader who rules with fear need only fail once. One who rules because he or she is liked is often ineffective at higher levels. The healthy leader-to-follower relationship is based on one thing above all others: trust! Convey that you trust your people, and build their trust accordingly.
I once worked for an institution that was trying hard to revive its public image and was participating in a national customer service survey program. Instead of focusing on providing good service in problem areas, employees were taught to use “key phrases” so that customers who later responded to the survey questions would answer more positively. Simply put, the survey data was being manipulated. A lack of integrity was putting employee morale at an all-time low.
This is the final and most important thing I have learned about being a leader. A lack of sincerity is a destroyer of trust, and it starts out so casually.
Twenty years ago I worked at a company that insisted on calling its employees “partners.” We hated the term, because it implied equality, which didn’t exist in practice. I never trusted my boss after that.
The worst leader I ever experienced stood in front of us for an hour, lecturing us about her leadership style. We all learned her real leadership qualities later, and none of them were ever mentioned on her slides. She was absolutely toxic, a narcissistic sociopath who cared nothing about her subordinates. I never saw a hint of a moral compass.
So it’s okay to keep those lists of tenets, manager skills and leadership values around the office, but these four are deal breakers. The failure of any one of these will destroy trust and productivity, whether you lead a company of soldiers or a team of financial analysts.