There are volumes written about the qualities that make for a good leader. Each one recommending a slightly (or radically) different approach. If you are studying to be a good leader, this is overwhelming and confusing.
The first page of results for a Google search for “Leadership Traits” returns links that range from reasonable to laughable.
- “The Seven Best Leadership Qualities” from Brian Tracy (Seven seems reasonable…)
- “Top Ten Traits of Great Leaders” from the American Management Association (Okay, ten isn’t too bad…)
- “22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader” on Entrepreneur.com (22 seems like a lot…)
- “23 Traits of Good Leaders” on CNN.com (22 wasn’t enough?)
- Then my favorite link, “101 Best Leadership Skills, Traits & Qualities” (What? And this wasn’t even published by the Onion…)
It’s overwhelming. Which cocktail of leadership traits and skills should you mix if you want to be successful?
Well, I have some good news for you. If your desire is to be a leader who creates an engaging work experience for employees, the list is far shorter.
Since employees experience work as a relationship, the role of the leader is to foster a healthy relationship between the employee and their work experience.
To do this successfully, there are really only four traits and skills you need.
- Love. To create an experience where employees can feel fully connected and emotionally engaged at work, you have to deeply care about people. This means caring more about the person and their wellbeing than what they can do for you or the organization. Knowing you really matter to someone else is the foundation of any healthy relationship.
- Listening. Communication is the fuel that powers healthy relationships. And the best communication takes the form of conversation and dialogue, a two-way exchange. As a leader, this means doing more listening than talking, asking more questions than providing answers. Remember the advice of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
- Empathy. This one is critical. Empathy is “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.” Part of the reason that the work experience goes awry is that leaders and managers forget what it’s like to be an employee or a new hire. Practicing empathy reminds us to ask more questions in an effort to see the work experience through the eyes of each employee. As a result, we can make decisions and take action on the things that really matter to our people.
- Courage. Being in a relationship with humans can be challenging and you won’t always get it right. Sometimes, you will try to do the right thing and it will go wrong. As a leader, you will make mistakes. You must be able to hear criticism, say you are sorry, and go right back to work trying to be better next time. If you are doing it right, leading people will feel scary and uncertain at times. But, you have to repeatedly find the courage to do the hard, important, uncomfortable things regardless. You must push past your fear because it’s not about you. Your people are counting on you to step up for them.
In my experience, when you find a leader who possesses these four qualities, you will find a group of engaged, loyal people following her. So, if your goal is to lead in a way that truly engages your team, start by focusing these four qualities. The others can wait.