Essential Qualities of Leadership

Not long after writing what I believe to be one of the most foundational leadership books of all time, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell put out a companion book to that called The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader. His thought process was that while there are indeed leadership laws we can each apply to lead our teams more effectively, there are certain qualities we need to have and/or develop internally in order to get the best possible results as we apply those laws! While I won’t be going into depth on much of what John shared, with the exception of a few quotes that help drive some points home, I will suggest you grab a copy of that book or give it a listen on Audible. It’s powerful!

So what are some of the most essential qualities of leadership? Before answering that question, let me challenge you to consider that by thinking about the best leaders you’ve had a chance to interact with personally. What specific things did they do on a routine basis that impacted you or anyone else around them?

The first thing that comes to my mind with the most effective leaders I’ve had a chance to work with and be mentored by has been an unconditional willingness to serve the team they’re leading rather than expecting the people reporting to them to adhere to their every command. The half dozen or so faces I’m picturing as I share this are all leaders who were always looking out for the best interest of their team before giving the slightest consideration to what would make their own life easier.

Don’t misunderstand my point here! I’m not suggesting that any of these leaders were looking for ways that their team members could lay down on the job while they themselves carried the load. Quite the contrary… Each of these folks had incredibly high expectations of the team around them, but they had even higher expectations of themselves. Their team understood that, saw an ongoing example of engagement, and followed that example by giving all they had to the tasks they were responsible for; not because they were forced to, but because they were inspired to!

The team members around the leaders I’m picturing saw firsthand that the overall good of the team, as well as their own individual opportunities, were always given priority over what was just good for the leader...

John dedicated the first chapter of The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader to the idea of character. Without strong character, someone in a leadership role isn’t very likely to put the interests of the team as a whole or the individual team members above their own! If that kind of character isn’t in place, the person in the role isn’t likely to ever be as effective as they could or should be. John said that “leaders cannot rise about the limitations of their character.”

Just because those leaders I’m thinking of often carried heavier workloads than the team members around them, don’t think for a minute that they were willing to accept mediocre performance from those team members. In fact, that was one of the reasons I had so much respect for each of them. Now, let’s look at how they handled that...

The Single Most Important Ingredient

I truly believe that one of the most essential qualities of leadership is serving the team we’re leading. Unfortunately, the idea of serving those team members is often mistaken for catering to those team members, which doesn’t serve anyone!

As we worked through that quality of service, I shared that some of the most effective servant leaders I’ve ever known weren’t willing to accept mediocre performance; they certainly certainly weren’t ones who catered to each passing whim any of the team members came up with. In fact, the leaders I’m picturing as I share this had some of the highest expectations for their team of anyone I’ve ever been around. And because they led by providing a consistent example, their teams delivered on those expectations!

Here’s where I need to stress a critical point… Those expectations weren’t met simply because the leader demanded that level of performance. Those leaders were incredibly intentional about building strong relationships with each person on their team. Notice I didn’t say friendships… While I’m not suggesting a friendship is wrong or inappropriate, that doesn’t always yield a strong working relationship. John Maxwell opens chapter 15 of The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader by sharing a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, “The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.” TR was never known to be a pushover but he still understood how critical relationships are to getting results!

With all that in mind, the next essential quality of leadership that I’d like to challenge you to consider is the willingness to have candid conversations when someone isn’t fulfilling their potential. As I mentioned earlier, servant leadership isn’t about picking up the slack with the team we’re leading falls short of what is expected. Sometimes the service a leader needs to provide is a candid conversation to help a team member get out of the ditch and headed in the right direction. Often thought of as constructive criticism, far too many people in leadership roles view having these discussions as something that will in some way hurt the relationship they have with the particular team member. I’d suggest that NOT having the conversation does far more damage when results continue to suffer, frustration builds, and respect is lost - with that team member as well as all the others who are watching the scenario unfold…

In Know What You’re FOR, Jeff Henderson credits one of his mentors, Dr. Tim Irwin, with introducing him to the concept of providing “Alliance Feedback” rather than constructive criticism. He explains it as developing strong relationships with your team members, forming alliances with them, and providing the kind of feedback that ensures everyone involved benefits from the outcome. He says that “great managers/leaders understand they don’t have to choose between what’s best for the organization and what’s best for the people. Often, what’s best is what’s best for both.”

To really get the most bang for our buck in doing that though, we’ll have to develop another essential quality of leadership...

Effective Communication Won’t Happen Without This

In order to become really effective with that idea of Alliance Feedback, and form authentic alliances (relationships) with the team members we’re responsible for leading, we need to become intentional about how we listen.

As he describes more around the idea of Alliance Feedback, Jeff Henderson suggests that “we take the time to get to know the person and their aspirations, hopes, and personal standards.” If someone in a leadership role isn’t willing to invest time and energy into doing this, which can often only be done by really listening to what their team members have to say in various situations, it’s unlikely that the relationship will ever be strong enough to form alliances.

Additionally, leaders are nearly always responsible for moving the organization forward. If we’re leading but not willing to listen enough to develop alliances, not only will we struggle to earn the kind of influence with our teams that truly moves them in the direction we need them to go, we’ll have an incredibly difficult time with any message we attempt to communicate being received in a way that our team members actually want to take action on. We need to understand what matters to them then share our message in the language that they best understand! I’ve never seen that happen without the leader first listening enough to know each of the team members!

Once we’ve listened in a way that we can form effective alliances and we’ve communicated the direction in a way each individual team member understands, we’re at a pretty solid starting point. And that’s where the work starts! That’s where we need to be sure we’re living out an example that each team member can follow, even if their role is completely different than ours. When we’re able to communicate how what they do impacts reaching the overall goal and they see us actively engaged in fulfilling our own role in reaching that same goal, we earn a level of commitment from them that we’d never see without developing each of the essential qualities of leadership that we’ve looked at to this point. (Cindy and I cover even more on this specific idea in Building Buy-In Around a Clear Mission & Vision)

From the outside looking in, it can seem far easier to bark orders and crack the whip when the metrics aren’t met. But the only time I’ve ever seen that be effective is when the team members involved have no other options; and it’s only effective then for a very limited time. But that approach isn’t as easy as it often seems...

The Buck Stops Here!

While barking orders and cracking the whip is really ineffective for a leader who needs to get long term engagement (and results) from their team, it can often look like an easy approach to someone who hasn’t held leadership responsibility or someone who isn’t considering the impact it will have moving forward. As leaders, we need to consider the future as much as we need to take care of what’s in front of us right now. If we choose to bark orders, crack the whip, blame our team when things go poorly, and take all the credit when things are great, leader isn’t likely a word that will be used to describe us and we probably won’t have any of those strong alliances I’ve referenced previously.

One of my good friends owns a growing company locally and has a sign on his desk that reads “The Buck Stops Here!” In many cases, that could be interpreted as him saying he’s in charge and has the final say on what goes on. All too often, that’s exactly what goes on. That’s not what I’ve seen from him though.

A lot of organizations talk about empowering their team members; I’ve watched him actually do it on a routine basis with each person he counts on to lead parts of his team as well as with the team members who work in the field on a daily basis. Rather than being quick to take the credit for the good things that happen and even quicker to point a finger when things go wrong, he views the idea that The Buck Stops Here as the opposite! He takes complete responsibility when things don’t go according to plan and hands out a ton of praise when things go great.

Before I go on, understand that when a leader takes responsibility for the things that go wrong, it doesn’t mean they hold sole responsibility. Each team member still needs to be held accountable if they fall short of what’s expected of them and they need to be able to learn from their mistakes.

His thought behind the idea that The Buck Stops Here is that he owns the financial responsibility for taking care of each of the dozens of families connected to his company. While other people still hold a stake in that responsibility, the buck really does stop with him!

John Maxwell opens chapter 16 of The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader by saying “A leader can give up anything - except final responsibility.” When we work to develop this essential quality of leadership, by becoming quick to pass on praise and even quicker to accept responsibility, we build even stronger alliances with our team members and provide them with even more reasons to buy into the culture we’re working to build!

Make Sure Your Mission Statement Does More Than Fill a Nice Frame in Your Lobby!

It’s never all that difficult to find an organization’s mission statement, but that doesn’t mean the people within that organization have bought in or have an idea how what they do on a daily basis ties back to that statement. In this COMPLIMENTARY webinar, we'll share some key steps you can take to make sure your team knows just how important what they do is to achieving your organization's mission & vision!

Building Buy-In Around a Clear Mission & Vision has been approved for continuing education credit by HRCI, SHRM, and the Va Dept. of Labor, just like all of the more than 65 additional lessons available in our Leading At The Next Level digital library!

Learn How Applying These Essential Leadership Qualities Builds Buy-In with Your Team

As you form strong alliances with your team members, you can achieve even more buy-in around your organization's mission & vision.

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