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The 6 Characteristics of Effective Leaders

Carolyn is a learner-centric instructional designer who is proficient at generating new content and improving upon existing materials.

What do almost all great team leaders have in common?

What do almost all great team leaders have in common?

What Makes an Effective Leader

People are thirsty for good leadership. Dozens of authors would seem to agree with this statement (e.g., Peter Drucker, Margaret Wheatley, James Kouzes, Barry Posner, Ken Blanchard, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Warren Bennis, and many others) and have devoted entire books to the topic. With a 21st-century audience in mind, I have digested their collective wisdom and developed a shortlist of six practices that I feel are important to effective leadership.

While, admittedly, these practices are not the be-all and end-all of leadership development, they are a great start for someone with limited time to devote to their professional or personal development.

What Is Leadership?

Leadership is a universal phenomenon occurring among all peoples of the earth, regardless of culture. One might even argue that the study of history is, in essence, the study of leaders, what they did, and why they did it. But that still doesn’t answer the question, "What is leadership?"

For me, there are only two essential elements to leadership: people and purpose. I believe that leadership is moving people towards a common purpose in a way that enriches those involved. While doing that, leaders engage in a wide range of activities, which brings us to the "how" of what leaders are all about.

The following is a shortlist of just six practices that I have found to be essential to effective leadership. As with most important issues and problems that we face, one point of view (our own) is usually not enough to give us a full understanding and appreciation of the topic at hand. Usually, we must seek other perspectives on the concepts, principles, and ideas that we’re trying to grasp. After you’ve read my list and the discussion that follows, I encourage you to dialogue further with your colleagues and associates.

The 6 Traits of a Great Leader

  1. They invest in people.
  2. They create a vision.
  3. They lead with their values.
  4. They ask questions.
  5. They eliminate constraints.
  6. They leave a legacy.

1. They Invest in People

Don’t be misled by the term "invest." In common business terms, to "invest" is to put money into something in order to obtain a profit. When it comes to people, it’s never that simple.

Investing in people means spending time and effort for their benefit, involving them in planning and problem solving, treating them with dignity and respect, creating an atmosphere of mutual trust, keeping them informed, and so on.

As a dear friend of mine, the late Col. Ray Berry was fond of saying, "People are not assets. People are everything!" If you truly invest in your people, you’re already miles ahead of the competition.

2. They Create a Vision

Most experts would agree that having a solid vision (and sharing it with your team) is a key criterion for good leadership. It could even be argued that the foundation of any effective organization is a common vision that is understood and accepted by all. As a leader, your role is to initiate the creation or refinement of your team’s vision.

People need a vision to bring them together around a common dream. It helps coordinate the activities of a diverse workforce, make decisions, build a foundation for subsequent planning, and much, much more.

Being competent at your job and being able to solve problems is good enough if you are an individual contributor. Knowing which problem to solve—now that’s the work of a leader, and it requires a vision of where you’re going.

3. They Lead With Their Values

Before Enron, it was more difficult to "sell" the value of values. That whole scandal made us all more aware of just how important our ethical conduct is to our employees, our customers, and our communities.

We use values to guide our conduct; evaluate our own and others’ actions, beliefs, and attitudes; resolve conflicts; and make decisions. Identifying your values establishes a foundation of leading courageously. As a leader, you will need to spend some time clarifying your values and principles to guide your behavior.

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4. They Ask Questions

Many people go through life making assumptions about other people, places, situations, and so on. It’s fairly common. We tend to believe that everyone (or at least almost everyone) thinks, feels, perceives, and judges the same way we do. Sometimes, we even assume that we already know everything we need to know.

If you only have yourself to worry about, you’ll run into problems with this approach, but they’ll tend to affect only a few people. If you’re the leader, watch out—the results could be catastrophic!

If you want to stop making assumptions, you’re going to need to start communicating more. And that doesn’t mean going around sharing your opinion with everyone you meet. It means asking questions. It means finding out what other people think and feel.

Strategically, there are three questions that you should always keep in mind:

  1. What needs to be changed? (Identify problems.)
  2. What should we change about it? (Develop solutions.)
  3. How can we bring about this change? (Design implementation plans.)

Armed with these three questions, you’re ready to bring communication to a whole new level in your organization.

5. They Eliminate Constraints

A constraint is anything that limits a system from realizing its maximum potential. It is, for lack of a better term, "the weakest link." Typically it is at the "root" of several other problems. Finding that one "broken part" that’s hanging everything else up and fixing it—that’s what is meant by eliminating the constraint.

To do this, you’ll need to listen to what people are complaining about, then look for commonalities among the complaints. Concentrate on causes—not symptoms. Try to pull back and see the "big picture." I could say so much more on this practice, but I have one more to go, and I can feel your attention span fading already. . . .

6. They Leave a Legacy

Take a moment—right now—to think about the legacy you want to leave behind when you move on to another venture or situation. What qualities do you want to be remembered for? How will your team remember what you did for them?

Effective leaders don’t "play it for the moment." They "play it for keeps." They practice the art of the "long view." If you haven’t done so before, it’s not too late to start today. What have you done to improve the well-being of your followers? What do you plan to do to improve the quality of life for those around you?

People Are Thirsty for Good Leadership

Leadership is about change, and the frequency and rate of change are not likely to decrease any time soon. This incessant churning of the business environment and society as a whole cries out for more leadership. It is my hope that, in some way, knowing and following the six practices outlined in this brief article will help current and future leaders deal more effectively with achieving their vision in our chaotic world.

References and Further Reading

  • Bass, Bernard M., Bass & Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications, 3rd ed., The Free Press, New York, 1990.
  • Covey, Stephen R., Principle-Centered Leadership, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1991.
  • Goldratt, Eliyahu M., and Jeff Cox. The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, 2nd Revised Ed., North River Press, Inc., Croton-on-Hudson, New York, 1992.
  • Harvard Business Review on Leadership, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 1998.
  • Heifetz, Ronald A. Leadership Without Easy Answers, Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA, 1994.
  • Kouzes, James M., and Posner, Barry Z., Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 1993.
  • Staub II, Robert E., The Heart of Leadership: 12 Practices of Courageous Leaders, Executive Excellence Publishing, Provo, UT, 1996.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2021 Carolyn Fields


Carolyn Fields (author) from South Dakota, USA on May 14, 2021:

Sorry about that Brenda. I thank you for trying multiple times. Perhaps you could consult with HubPages help?

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on May 13, 2021:

I've tried reading this 4 times, but each time the page becomes unresponsive.

Maybe I will see it on the feed again later.

Carolyn Fields (author) from South Dakota, USA on May 13, 2021:

Thank you for reading and commenting!

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on May 11, 2021:

Your list of "Six Practices for Effective Leadership" is valuable information. I'm drawn to "lead by values" and "create a vision." But all six are equally necessary. This is a helpful topic. Thank you.

Carolyn Fields (author) from South Dakota, USA on May 11, 2021:

Thanks, Dora, for reading and commenting!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 11, 2021:

Asking questions is probably the easiest, but I think it is so important. Take nothing for granted. Clarify everything and enter every other phase of the development process with confidence.

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