Key Characteristics: What Does Great Leadership Look Like?

It’s a question that’s been asked countless times over the centuries: “What makes a truly great leader?” The answer is difficult to come by, because great leaders often don’t know how to distill the factors that contribute to their success. But research organizations and behavioral scientists have studied people who are highly effective, and they’ve made some interesting discoveries. Here are the findings of two of the most intriguing recent studies.

1. Great Leaders Take a Diagnostic Approach

Dr. Jennifer Chatman, UC Berkeley-Haas professor of management and faculty director of The Berkeley Executive Leadership Program, tackled the born-or-made debate. Her research has shown that personality traits (such as assertiveness or dominance) aren’t reliable indicators of success. She has come to the conclusion that a person’s capacity to learn three specific behaviors is tied to leadership success.

The first of these behaviors is the habit of taking a diagnostic approach to situations. Effective leaders quickly take stock of a situation and are adept at reading social cues. They’re able to get a sense of what’s needed most in any given situation and determine how they can add value.

2. Great Leaders Engage With People According To Their Individual Behavioral Style

Dr. Chatman’s research also revealed that successful leaders engage with individuals in ways that are most productive for each person. Everyone has different ways of relating, ways that typically correlate with personality. Some people prefer direct, to-the-point communication, and they’re driven crazy by small talk. Some people need to feel valued as human beings before they feel comfortable enough to share their input. There are many different styles, and effective leaders make a habit of communicating with people based on their individual styles.

3. Great Leaders Are Committed to Improvement

The third key characteristic that consistently showed up in Dr. Chatman’s research was commitment to improvement. Effective leaders seek continual improvement for themselves, for those they’re leading, and for situations. They’re always asking, “How can I get better?” “How can I help this person to be better?” and “How can I make this situation better?”

4. Great Leaders Invest in Strengths

Gallup scientists also aimed to learn what characteristics effective leaders share. They studied over a million work teams, conducted more than 20,000 in-depth interviews with leaders, and interviewed over 10,000 people to ask exactly why they followed the most important leader in their lives.

The research uncovered that leaders who are the most successful stay focused on their people’s strengths. The study found that when an organization's leadership fails to focus on individuals' strengths, the odds of an employee being engaged are a dismal 1 in 11 (9%). But when an organization's leadership focuses on the strengths of its employees, the odds grow to almost 3 in 4 (73%). As Jim Collins said, leadership is about getting the right people in the right seats, aligning people’s strengths with the work they’re tasked to perform, and then helping them get even better.

5. Great Leaders Understand Their People’s Needs

The same Gallup study found that effective leaders make a habit of seeking to understand. The most enthusiastic followers of their leaders said that they not only felt understood, but that their leaders made a point to provide consistent trust, compassion, stability, and hope.

6. Great Leaders Surround Themselves With People Who Have the Strengths They Lack

While Gallup’s research revealed that successful leaders focus on strengths rather than weaknesses, these leaders also recognized that their own weaknesses somehow needed to be addressed. They solved this problem by surrounding themselves with people whose strengths filled their gaps, allowing team members to live out their strengths and round out the team.

These discoveries about leadership are encouraging, because they don’t depend on personality traits that we either have or don’t have. Each of these characteristics can be learned and developed into habits.

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