The Secret Sauce of Leadership: 9 Traits that All Good Leaders Have — Sept 2019

Leadership matters.  It’s what separates the good organizations from the bad and the great organizations from the good.  Good leadership is critical for optimizing resources, maximizing employee engagement, aligning organizational activities, and achieving and sustaining high performance.  In fact, research shows that leadership is the number one driver of superior organizational outcomes.  Or, said another way: without good leadership, organizations can never achieve and sustain true performance excellence.

With that said, how do leaders improve themselves?  And what constitutes good leadership?  Fortunately, there are answers…

The Baldrige Framework provides a set of validated best practices that have been proven to drive organizational results: Baldrige is revised every two years to reflect what the highest performing organizations across the US are doing to achieve high performance.  Within the Baldrige Leadership Category, there are several key requirements – leadership systems and processes that are necessary to ensure effective leadership and high performance within organizations.  Here are some of them.  Great leaders:

  • Set organizational vision and values
  • Create an environment that ensures a successful organization now and in the future
  • Promote, ensure, and demonstrate legal and ethical behavior
  • Communicate with and engage their entire workforce and key customers
  • Create a focus on action that will achieve the organization’s mission
  • Ensures responsible governance, accountability, transparency, succession planning
  • Evaluate and improve leader effectiveness as well as effectiveness of the leadership system
  • Anticipate and address public concerns
  • Consider societal well-being and actively support and strengthen key communities

The Baldrige Framework would suggest that organizations should design, manage and improve processes that allow and enable leaders to accomplish those things listed above.  The processes should be systematic (consistent, repeatable, and fact-based), and they should be deployed to all leaders in all parts of the organization.  I think few would argue that those leadership processes are necessary for any organization to ensure effective, high performing leadership (and to achieve superior organizational outcomes).  But I will submit that they are not totally sufficient for doing so.

What’s missing for me are the set of skills necessary to be a good leader – characteristics, traits, and competencies that enable leaders to be effective in managing relationships, influencing behavior, and inspiring others to contribute their utmost to the accomplishment of collective goals.  Sometimes labeled the “soft skills,” these are really the hardest to master – they represent the “secret sauce” behind truly effective leadership.  And yet time and time again, they represent the difference between average and extraordinary leaders.

According to Alan Colberg, CEO of Fortune 500 company Assurant in an article in “technical skills are essential in helping [leaders] move forward in every career, but you also need to have strong “soft” skills.  While there are many personal, social, and communicative behaviors that [leaders] should master, there are [a few] critical interpersonal skills that will help keep you on the right track.”

Colberg lists four “soft” skills important for any leader to master: civility, relationship building, conscientiousness, and integrity.  I think Colberg is right (and I expand upon his ideas below), but I don’t think Colberg’s list is complete.

blog posted by Harry Hertz, director emeritus of the Baldrige Program, a few years ago sealed it for me.  Dr. Hertz very nicely captured insights from two independent pieces of research – one by Sunnie Giles in the Harvard Business Review and one by Glenn Llopsis in Forbes – that outlined leadership competencies and employees’ expectations of leaders, respectively.  Combined, the three articles capture about over 20 traits that all good leaders have.  So then I kept reading, scanning probably 10-12 other great articles on leadership all published in the last year or two.  The list of possible leadership traits grew, but what I began to find interesting was the overlap in findings.  When I started to intersect the research, there seems to be about nine common leadership characteristics that emerge.  I think you’ll find these insightful…

Great leaders:

  • Practice civility: Colberg states that leaders need to be courteous, treat everyone with respect, and practice common decency.  Really, this comes down to practicing the Golden Rule of “doing unto others…”  Llopsis says that respect “reverberates and multiplies” and that employees “want leaders who respect and value their teamwork and individual contributions.”  When leaders demonstrate civility, they are leading not just from the head, but the heart.
  • Have integrity: Colberg claims that leaders should “do the right thing,” maintain high levels of professionalism, and actively live and demonstrate ethical behavior.  In fact, having high ethical and moral standards was the #1 leadership skill in the Giles HBR research and the premier trait for Colberg.  Llopsis claims that, while there is a tendency for leaders to tell only half the truth to protect their people and reduce uncertainty, “leaders that are honest on the frontend avoid creating unnecessary disruption and division in the workplace on the backend.”  Trust is the foundation of relationships, and relationships are the foundation of leadership.
  • Are conscientiousness and accountable: Colberg claims that good leaders are eager to make their (and others’) work better, to continually seek ways to grow and improve.  Good leaders don’t cut corners, and they don’t delegate too much – they don’t avoid adversity and they don’t push off problems they should handle themselves.  Llopsis states that accountable leaders are the most respected and admired: “when leaders protect their employees and ‘have their backs,’ they will want to do the same for their leaders.”
  • Show vulnerability: good leaders know their strengths and admit their shortcomings.  As Llopsis says, leaders don’t have all of the answers, nor should they act as if they do.  Employees appreciate and respect leaders who recognize, understand, and admit their own limitations, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement.  They are humble, honest, admit their mistakes, and they are sometimes labeled “down to earth” because they are well-grounded and relatable with their people.  Leaders who understand their own vulnerabilities will appreciate and show compassion for others’ vulnerabilities.
  • Communicate effectively: good leaders set specific, clear vision and goals. They get to the point, avoid jargon, and are clear and consistent in their messages.  Good leaders know that specific, clear communication is what prevents unexpected surprises, ambiguity, frustration, rework, and waste.  It also builds transparency and trust.  Good leaders, according to Giles, also communicate often and openly, which “creates a feeling of succeeding and failing together” as a team and builds a strong foundation of connectedness.
  • Empower their people: good leaders trust their people.  They provide the skills, tools, and resources needed for their employees to be successful, and they create the environment that allows them to achieve that success.  They empower their people to make decisions and to learn (not to be blamed or punished) for their failures.  They know that empowerment leads to self-sufficiency, innovation, problem solving, mastery, and purposeful work.  They also know that it leads to having an engaged workforce, and ultimately more satisfied and engaged customers and better organizational results.
  • Embrace learning: According to Giles and the HBR research, good leaders have flexibility to change opinions, are open to new ideas and approaches, and provide safety for trial and error.  In short, good leaders create an environment for personal and organizational learning.  They take intelligent risks (and encourage and reward others for doing so); they embrace professional learning and development; they withhold initial judgment, value diverse ideas, and invite new ways of doing things; and they welcome failure as a way to learn and improve.  They know that good leaders develop themselves, but great leaders develop other great leaders.
  • Are authentic: employees want leaders to be themselves – to be who they a really are and to have consistency and harmony between their values, their messages, and their actions.  Authentic leadership requires having honest, transparent relationships.  It centers on trust, transparency, inclusiveness, and fairness.  As quoted by Kevin Kruse in a different Forbes article from 2013, authentic leaders are self-aware, genuine, mission- and purpose-driven, focused on results, and focused on the long-term.
  • Serve others: While the concept dates back to biblical times, the phrase “servant leader” was first used by Robert Greenleaf in the 70s.  Servant leaders ensure that others’ high priority needs are being served first – they focus on the growth and well-being of others and the communities (and organizations) to which they belong.  They practice humility; they think about what’s best for others and the organization before what’s best for themselves; they share power and responsibility; and they are collaborative and participative rather than dictatorial and authoritarian.  They lead quite literally from a position of platonic love, not fear.

Which brings me to a final list of good leadership traits, this one researched and created by Paul Batz, CEO and owner of PEN’s partner Good Leadership Enterprises.  Batz concludes that employees expect leaders to consistently do four things, which he labels the “cornerstones of good leadership”:

  • Reward excellence
  • Live generously
  • Promote fairness
  • Spread positivity

I think the four very much relate to the nine synthesized above (positivity relates to civility, living generously to serving others, fairness to accountability, and so forth).  Batz claims that leaders who live those four principles – and blend what he calls the “Seven F’s” (Faith, Family, Finances, Fitness, Friends, Fun, and Future) into their personal and professional lives – will “live with less stress and lead with less fear.  They are more attractive to customers and are more magnetic to the best talent.”  In short, they are good leaders with good intentions and great skills.  And he claims that they usually lead teams and organizations that have better outcomes and results.

The week after next PEN is hosting two special full-day retreats that focus on creating a culture of excellence: 7.5 Keys to Leadership Effectiveness, Customer Experience, and Workforce Engagement, October 8 in Chaska (at the Oak Ridge Resort & Conference Center) and October 10 in Red Wing (at the St. James Hotel).  The workshops are facilitated by Bryan Williams of B. Williams Enterprise LLC (formerly of Ritz Carlton). 

The workshop will be highly interactive, engaging, and valuable for leaders and other professionals from all sizes and types of organizations.  Filled with tools, best practices, and proven methods, the workshop will focus on essential aspects of strengthening and sustaining a strong service culture and strong, effective leaders.  We hosted this event two years ago on the North Shore and it was our highest rated PEN event ever!

So great leadership is a combination of having effective, systematic organizational leadership processes (those outlined by Baldrige), but also having a set of learned and practiced traits – the soft skills – that serve to empower, engage, and inspire others.  After all, leaders cannot lead without followers.  And leadership is all about people – building, nurturing, and sustaining long-term relationships to achieve collaborative impact.

What comments do you have regarding effective leadership?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Yours in Performance Excellence,

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

[this article modified from an original post May 2016]