Not all executive appointments end in success. Some fizzle and fade, while others crash and burn in spectacular (and sometimes scandalous or entertaining) fashion.
It’s entirely possible to be a ‘good enough’ leader, but what is it that separates the best of the best from the rest? What are the traits of great leaders?
A recent study from organisational and leadership consulting firm Navalent closely studied a group of 2700 executives over 10 years to gauge the traits of great leaders and what they had in common. The longitudinal study isolated seven performance factors that are correlated with strong organisational performance. Researchers cross-referenced these findings with past performance reviews of not just the leader surveyed, but their direct reports as well. What resulted was the discovery of four recurring patterns of behaviour and a holistic view of how these markers contribute to overall business success.
Great leaders have mastery of all four behaviours, while good leaders might only excel in one or two categories. So without further ado, here are the traits of great leaders.
They know the whole business.
Researchers found that exceptional executives have a deep knowledge of how the all the bits and pieces of an organisation fit together. Some leaders get bogged down in cognitive biases or lean on past work experiences to guide them in future decisions. Having these biases doesn’t preclude someone from becoming a great leader; what matters is whether an individual actively works against these predispositions to turn an organisation into a well-oiled machine.
While familiarising themselves with all facets of an organisation, great leaders also focus on closing the seams within a business to keep things from falling apart. Rather than leave different departments to fend for themselves, the best leaders brought everyone together to create integrated solutions that also solve systemic problems within the organisation.
They are great decision-makers.
Leadership isn’t just about getting personal views across – according to study results, leaders must engage others’ ideas, analyse data for insights, weigh alternatives, own the final call and communicate decisions clearly. The results from these skills are higher levels of confidence and focus from subordinates.
One natural side effect of good decision-making is that it boosts the ability to effectively prioritise tasks. Focusing on a few priorities also helps eliminate competing goals and focus on getting the execution right.
However, despite the clear importance of this ability, research shows it is surprisingly rare. One 2010 McKinsey report found that only 28 per cent of executives surveyed said the quality of strategic decision-making in their organisation was good; 60 per cent thought that bad decisions happen as frequently as good ones; the remaining 12 per cent though good decisions were infrequent.
Perhaps it’s because making a decision lies somewhere between fully analysing a situation and following gut-instincts. Exceptional leaders flow along this continuum, letting the situation dictate the response.
They know the industry.
In business, context is important. Good leaders know this and work to retain a solid grasp on the environment in which their business operates. This quality is called contextual intelligence, and it requires that leaders anticipate trends and make decisions with the future of the organisation in mind.
According to researchers, the leaders who scored highest on this skill were innately curious and had a deep understanding of where their organisation fit into the wider business landscape. Armed with this knowledge, they were better able to address threats and take advantage of opportunities. Additionally, researchers found that great leaders develop a healthy sense of scepticism and rarely make assumptions without doing a bit of digging first.
They form deep, trusting relationships.
Leaders can get results, but unless they form lasting connections with those who work under them in the process, it won’t mean much in the long run. Researchers found that relational failure led to the quickest demise among second-best executives. High-achieving leaders remained humble and forged relationships with co-workers, whereas second-rate managers were more focused on creating the illusion of collaboration to mask self-interested motives.
One study from the Center for Creative Leadership found that failed relationships contribute to a high rate of executive failure. Another study from Vantage Hill Partners found that executives fear being perceived as incompetent, underachieving or foolish, and these fears negatively affected their behaviour.
How do you get there? Emotional and social intelligence are important, as is soliciting feedback about strengths and weaknesses.
The good news is that these traits are learnable and can have a tremendous impact on the quality and consistency of leadership within an organisation. The study’s researchers recommend that you start slow and let each quality build on the next – you’ll find that all four are interrelated. Mastering one or two will make you a good leader, but getting all four right might make you the leader everyone wants to work with.