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Can You Name the 9 Essential Qualities of a Leader?

There are many schools of thought about the role of a leader. What are the essential qualities of a leader? What are the must-haves?

Well, I have three distinct opinions.

What makes a great leader?

  1. A leader taps into their team’s talents to achieve results.
  2. A leader’s role is not to engage their team but to achieve their mission by motivating and inspiring their people.
  3. A leader does not run a country club; they lead people to achieve something more significant than they could ever achieve as individuals.

The essential qualities of a leader

We also know that each leader should have a mission. Often, there are overlapping qualities between leaders in any industry and for all kinds of teams. For example, their mission is to create a cohesive, effective team in almost every case. Their mission could be to inspire, motivate, and bring out the best in their team.

But one thing is for sure, regardless of the exact details of their mission, there are certain qualities a leader must have to achieve them.

Here are the nine qualities of a leader they must tap into to lead effectively and in line with their goals.

Be Creative

Leaders must be creative and unafraid to take creative risks. Creativity allows competency to move to excellence. It is the spark that captures peoples’ attention and builds a cohesive whole.

Know the Structure

Leaders know and understand the structure of their organization. But they also know when to move beyond the boundaries of these structures. While we all work within parameters and limitations, a great leader knows not to let structure slow the process. Knowing the structure enables you to guide others to work within it effectively.

Use Your Intuition

Intuition is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. And emotional intelligence is one of the cornerstone qualities of a leader. Use your insight to sense what others are feeling and thinking so you can respond to them with understanding.

(We discuss more why emotional intelligence is critical to becoming a better leader in this post.)

Be Committed

A leader is committed to success. One of the qualities of a leader who leads effectively is that they can articulate that vision to the team. Then, they can also move and inspire the team toward the goal.

Be Human

Employees value humble and selfless leaders who don’t hide behind authority. The best leaders are those who aren’t afraid to be themselves. They respect and connect with others and inspire loyalty.

Be Versatile

Flexibility is the ability to be not overly attached to how things are ‘supposed to be’ and allows you to respond to events that will inevitably come up.

Have Fun

A light touch and a laugh balance out the seriousness of the task at hand and the team’s resolve and contribute to results and retention. When appropriate, levity can go a long way to energize your team members and promote a positive team environment.

Discipline

Discipline is the ability to choose what one pays attention to and consistently model leadership. It’s one of the qualities of a leader that, by demonstrating, they can also inspire in their team.

Focus

Do not take your eye off your objectives … a leader achieves results!

(On the topic of results, take a look at this post next: The Last Thing You Need Is Another Leadership TED Talk: 3 Tactics That Leads To Action & Results)

Develop these qualities of a leader in yourself.

When you read through this list, chances are you mentally checked off some items. Maybe discipline and focus are two of your strong suits as a leader. But chances are, there are also some qualities of a leader you would like to work on developing in yourself. In that case, we should talk. My one-on-one coaching is for new or uncertain leaders who need help finding their way forward. Please read all about how it works here.

Did you like reading about the qualities of a leader?

Here are three posts to read next:

This post was first published in 2017 but was updated in 2021, just for you.

I wasted $20,000 – The 3 Questions you should asked before you waste money, time and people.

L’esprit de l’escalier:

We have all been there.

You are responding to a job interview question or having a spirited debate.

When it is over, and you walk away, that is when you think of that perfect response.

And I mean perfect, the mother of all answers and proof of your wisdom and powerful intellect.

Except, no one is there to hear you.

The literal translation of L’esprit de l’escalier means “the spirit of the staircase.”

The phrase is attributed to an 18th-century French philosopher who was berated at a party in a Parisian loft.

He left the party and went to the ground floor, where he looked back up the staircase.

And at that moment, he found his wits and came up with the perfect reply.

 

Letting an audience member down

Recently I spoke at the Certified Human Resources Professionals conference.

The workshop was titled: The HR Professional’s Dilemma: Leading When You Have Full Responsibility, But No Authority.

Read how you can bring this workshop to your team

I have to say it went well. The audience was engaged. I felt great.

Then the last question of the session was asked: “What do you do when no one is supporting the project you are trying to get done.”

I gave an okay answer, but not the best solution.

The conference centre is built into a hill, and there are several long escalators to ride as you move through the building.

When I got to the bottom of one escalator, literally and figuratively, L’esprit de l’escalier hit me.

The response I should have given came to me.

I should have responded with a series of questions:

Who’s project is it?

 Is it your project or the organization’s project?

 Have your peer and leadership teams said the project was vital to achieving the organization’s strategic objectives?

 Because if the project is only your priority and not the whole organization’s, it will be hard to move it forward.

 If everyone is not pulling together towards success, you will be all alone pushing a rope.

Read about asking better questions.

Wasting $20,000

It happened to me.

I dreamed of hosting a high-end conference to promote my organization’s work and establish us as a world-class centre of excellence.

I put into my team and personal performance objectives and got them into the organization’s strategic plan.

Nice Eh?

Sure-fire success!

But it was only my plan.

My peers and boss seemed okay with it and did nothing to stop me from moving this forward.

I made $20K worth of commitments to meeting planners, hotels, and speakers.

And it failed because it wasn’t an organizational objective.

Only mine.

 

The better answer

If the project you are working on does not help your organization meet its strategic objectives.

If it doesn’t help your boss meet their performance objectives.

If it doesn’t support your peers’ objectives

Then you are undertaking a Sisyphean task or are shouting up the staircase.

Read about Sisyphean tasks

So, ask yourself why you are doing it.

Leading Through Trauma

Unlike the military, which is used to manage battlefield stress, civilians generally receive perfunctory support when they deal with trauma.

I recently read a 2002 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article titled Leading Through Trauma. In the paper, the authors argue that:  

“Although the human capacity to show compassion is universal, some organizations suppress it while others create an environment in which compassion is not only expressed but spread.”

They have a good point. 

Get the seven things you can do to lead that won’t cost a cent

Whether trauma happens at the individual level – unexpected medical diagnosis – or the collective level – a disaster strikes a community – the fallout is real and calls for leaders to express more than empathy. 

The article explains that leaders can meet this challenge by understanding the need for meaning and taking appropriate action.  

  • Meaning occurs when people try to make sense of the traumatic event and often find themselves soul-searching – asking difficult questions.  
  • Leaders can take action by making it ok for people to process the tough questions, providing knowledgeable resources to support the effort, establishing routines that offer stability, and creating networks of those who can learn from and help each other. 

As I considered the article, I felt we all long for this type of leadership as we face the complexity of today’s world and experience both heightened awareness of traumatic events and a lack of humanity.   

Get the seven comms tips so you don’t sound like an ass

Considering these thoughts, consider who around you might be dealing with a traumatic event and explore how you might meet their needs. 

By the way, this isn’t just a top-down leadership idea… 

A few years ago, a co-worker’s brother passed away. The funeral was held in a small community several hours outside of Calgary.

Family and friends filled the building.

I looked around at the many faces who had shown up to mourn the loss and celebrate this man’s life.

Except for my friend and co-worker, I didn’t know a soul,

I saw my co-worker; he greeted me like a long-lost friend, swept me by the arm, led me to the front of the hall and sat me down with the family. 

I knew my friend was going through a traumatic event and showed up to support me.

He likely would never have noticed, nor held it against me, if I chose not to attend the service. But he certainly appreciated that I was there.

Learn more about how you can be a Better Leader.

Please consider those in your life who may be going through a difficult time this week. Reach out to them. You don’t have to jump on a plane and travel halfway across the country. You can pick up the phone, email, or drop a card in the mail.  

I think that we all agree that we need more humanity in the world; take this opportunity to provide it.

27 Powerful Open-Ended Leadership Questions

The goal of a leader is to ensure that your team finds a solution to their problem.

To do that, they have to know what the problem is. You must know how to ask open-ended leadership questions to ensure successful conversations. Open-ended questions are essential for any leadership strategy because they allow you to understand your employee’s wishes and needs with subtlety.

What Is an Open-Ended Leadership Question?

An open-ended question is not one with a simple answer. When understanding an employee’s motivations and goals, you don’t want curt “yes” or “no” answers; you want them to deliberate and talk at length.

You want to know their point of view, and open-ended questions make that happen. The more the employee says in response to the first question, the more details you have to ask further questions.

The clearest example of an open-ended versus a closed-ended question is “Do you have any questions?” versus “What questions can I answer?”. The first could prompt a simple “no,” and then there is a lull in the conversation. The second, however, starts your listener to deliberate longer and ask several questions they may not have thought of.

Questions usually asked by leaders include fact-gathering questions, goal-oriented questions, and rapport-building questions. All of these are good and useful to the leadership process, but each needs to allow for an open-ended answer and tie in with the larger goals and needs of the employee.

Benefits of Open-Ended Question

Many things, asking open-ended questions equips you with better leadership skills. For example:

  • It allows you to build trust and rapport with the employee, as it demonstrates your interest.
  • You can learn more about the employee wants and preferences and define needs, goals, challenges, and other data.
  • It places you as the expert in the discussion, presenting your value. 

Open-Ended Rapport-Building Questions

Rapport-building questions start the conversation, get your employees talking, and help you understand the person you’re working with. It can also make you both more comfortable with a more personal connection and allow you to begin gathering the necessary information.

Examples:

    • Can you tell me about your priorities for this meeting?
    • What is your background?
    • How is business going?
    • Please tell me about your upcoming plans for the year.
    • What would you like to see improve?
    • What is your biggest challenge right now?
    • Could you list your concerns in this area?

 Open-Ended Qualifying Questions

These questions can help determine the interest level of your employee in how you’ve approached the conversation. It can also let you know how to proceed. Not every employee will buy what you’re selling, and it’s essential to figure out how much an employee is committed.

Examples:

    • What is your timeline for this to be resolved?
    • What do you see as the next steps moving forward?
    • How do you decide this?
    • When should you assess these solutions?
    • How should we move forward after this?

 

Open-Ended Priority Questions

These questions help discover and address your employees’ roadblocks or concerns and further understand their priorities and needs. These questions should be carefully constructed so as not to steer the conversation toward something that can’t be fixed. Be sure to treat each employee individually, and don’t assume you know their priorities based only on similar customers.

Examples:

  • What would you like to achieve in the upcoming year?
  • How is that problem changing how you operate?
  • What isn’t working in the current setup?
  • What improvements are you hoping to gain from this?
  • What would prevent you from making this change right now?

 Open-Ended Discovery Questions

A discovery question should be clarifying and probing, provoking thought and deliberation in your employee. The better you understand the employee’s wishes, the better you can tailor a solution to their needs.

Examples:

    • What are your intentions for the future?
    • Can you elaborate on that?
    • What are your reservations?
    • What needs to be fixed with the current process?
    • What have I not covered that you’d like to hear more about?

 Open-Ended Goal-Based Questions

These help you discover the wishes and wants of your employees if you listen closely. When you know what’s holding them back from achieving their goals, you can better assist them with a solution. Focusing on the benefits of your product and how they attune to the purposes of the employee can also help close a deal.

Examples:

    • Why do you think this solution isn’t working?
    • How is the problem affecting your work?
    • What do you want this meeting to achieve?
    • How should we assess the success of this?
    • What could we do to avoid similar problems?

 Responding to the Answers to Open-Ended Questions

Be sure to ask your questions without rushing into them or being pushy. Show your genuine interest. Your questions should make your employees talk for as long as they want, and you must be sure to listen to them and provide helpful conversation. Be patient and don’t interrupt; everything you hear can benefit a sale.

Learning How to Ask the Right Questions

Increasing your experience with leadership discussions will allow you to keep a better ear out for helpful information.

When you know what to look for, you will find that subsequent conversations will go easier.

Get rid of Top-Down Supervision

Leadership is not for a select few people at the top of the organization; a healthy Organization has leaders at every level.

I constantly hear supervisors gripe about their employees’ lack of ownership in their work and projects. However, the same supervisors do not realize that they take actions that take ownership away from their people.

Read about leading with intent.

Hoping people take ownership is not a plan.

Leaders of healthy organizations implement systems and mechanisms that eliminate mechanisms that inhibit a sense of ownership.

Top-down systems rob people of their sense of ownership, so the more you can do to eliminate them, the better. I am not talking about monitoring data and results, as these should make the invisible visible.

The systems I am speaking about involve senior management determining what their subordinates should be doing and then holding them accountable.

In my experience, people do their best work when they are accountable to themselves and their teammates.

Read more about accountability.

When it comes to processes, adherence to the process frequently becomes the objective, as opposed to achieving the goal that the process was put in place.v  

It drives people crazy when the process becomes the outcome.

W. Edward Deming, who explored the principle of Total Quality Leadership, said that systems to monitor efficiency improved efficiency. However, processes that monitored the process made the organization inefficient.

Monitoring processes, or how employees do their jobs, sends the message that we do not trust you.

And in the end, it drives employees away from taking ‘ownership.’

You will drive ownership if you are clear about your intent and what employees are not allowed to do when carrying out your plan.

 

Consider these questions:

How are you underutilizing the ideas, creativity, and passions of your mid-level managers, who are responsible for their departments’ results?

Which monitoring systems can you hand over to mid-level managers and department heads?

What are the top-down monitoring systems in your organization? And how can you eliminate them?

 

What are the Four levels of Accountability Systems?

Level 1 – Chaos: People are not told what they are accountable for and therefore don’t do their jobs

Level 2 – Inefficient: People are told what they are accountable for but don’t do their jobs because of overwork or focus on the wrong things. This is most inefficient because resources are invested in monitoring, not getting work done.

Level 3 – Compliance: People understand what they are responsible for and do their work because there are systems to hold people accountable. People often feel forced to do their jobs. This is where most organizations are and work towards, but this is top-down leadership.

Level 4 – Healthy: People are not told what to do because they have figured it out independently. They also hold themselves and their peers accountable for results with a minimum number of monitoring systems. This is a highly engaged, energized, and healthy organization where people have committed and ownership of their work.

 

In traditional top-down organizations, accountability processes say that you, the employee, cannot hold yourself accountable for your work; therefore, your boss must do it for you.

In a healthy organization, people hold themselves and their peers accountable for their performance.

Read about Healthy organizations.

Leaders in a healthy organization do not hold employees accountable; they help them hold themselves accountable.

How powerful would it be if people felt safe enough to ask others, ‘Can you help me stay on track.’

This would inspire accountability and efficiency, creativity and energy.

Three 3-minute articles to discuss with your team to create a lifetime of positive change (for everyone).

This article has been reprinted several times, most recently,

the Engineering Management Institute has reprinted it

What you can do with this: You can print, read, share, and discuss it.

How to use this material:

      • Discuss. Remind. Encourage.
      • That’s my recommended approach to helping people commit and develop.
      • I recommend reading and discussing the first three articles with your team and repeat weekly.
      • Each can be read in less than three minutes and discussed in 10 to 15 minutes.

How to prepare:

      • Share one of the articles with your team and schedule a time for discussion.
      • Or share the guide with your department leaders and have them facilitate smaller discussions.
      • Ask everyone to read the discussion article.
      • Ask them to make notes on anything they find valuable or disagree with. If you prefer, give them some questions about the material for ideas and ask them to provide some advanced thought.
      • On your own, read the article, make your notes, and answer the questions you intend to ask or give.
      • Give some quick thought to any likely objections or challenges to the material you can anticipate from your group. (Who might ask what and how you want to respond?)
      • Introduce your upcoming discussions in person or by email. Feel free to use the following as a suggested script to edit to fit your style:

“I came across a few short articles that significantly impacted me. I thought we all might benefit from reading and discussing them over the next few weeks – one each week.

“Each article can be read in less than three minutes. Please read the first one and give some advanced thought to it. Make notes on anything that connects with you.

“Let’s kick off next week strong and meet in the conference room Monday morning at 8:00 for 20 minutes at most.

“I think the effort will be good for our work, but it also might be helpful to each of us personally.”

Discussion tips:

      • Be enthusiastic.
      • Avoid interrupting or finishing someone’s thoughts or answers.
      • Add a small gap of silence to an answer – just a beat or two. This may allow someone to expand on something and avoid someone feeling that they need to rush through their answers.
      • When you feel someone might have more value to add, encourage them with a “What do you mean, Nancy?” or “Can you expand on that?” or “What happened next?”
      • Invite different people to contribute to the discussion or have other people lead the talks each week.
      • Be ready to help the discussion move on if someone takes too much control of it. (“Good point, Bob. If we have time in the end, let’s come back to this.”)

Discussion #1: Slippery Moments & Quiet Quitting

The Gallup organization says that in North America, roughly:

              • 29% of us are engaged and care about our work
              • 54% of us are just “Going Through the Motions.”
              • 17% are “Disgruntled” and get in the way of those who care

Of course, we all have moments when we are not working at our best, but the “Going Through the Motions” people or those who have “Quietly Quit” are challenging to deal with. Dealing with the “Going Through the Motions” or “Disgruntled” can be slippery and trip you up.

Slippery Moments Discussion Questions:

          • How do you think the numbers from Gallup stand up here?
          • What are some typical examples of moments we see here?
          • What are the consequences for our customers/ourselves?
          • What are your thoughts on the problem?
          • What are a few specific things we could start doing today to make those “Going Through the Motions” or “Disgruntled” moments less frequent? What else?

Discussion #2: Distraction Diet

Imagine the incredible results you’d have if you focused more during your day. You could:

                • Contribute more
                • Serve people better (internally and externally)
                • Come up with more ideas
                • Waste less time ramping back up
                • Create more opportunities
                • Plan better
                • Be less frustrated and stressed

Five ways to knock out the bulk of distractions:

        1. Establish focus hours for yourself. Set aside time each day when you’ll be unavailable for anything but true emergencies. If you can, commit to no inter-office communications during focus hours unless it genuinely can’t wait. No small talk. No “Hey… just a sec” interruptions.
        2. Turn off email alerts and commit to checking them at the most minimal level you feel is possible without harming service to others.
        3. Turn off chat and messaging apps (personal and team) unless your work requires it to get the job done.
        4. Avoid the web during your money hours (hours of the workday where you make good things happen) unless you need it for your work. The distractions are endlessly pleasant for those who’d prefer to avoid making good things happen (not your goal).
        5. Face away from distractions if you’re in a setting that allows you to do so.

Distraction Diet Discussion Questions:

          • What are the most valuable of the five ideas for us? The least valuable? Why? Why not?
          • What impact can our distraction have on our customers/colleagues?
          • What are some other ideas we could do to improve?
          • If we gave out an award to the most focused person on our team/department, who would win it? Why?
          • How can we help each other when we slip? What kind of agreement can we make to stay committed to better focus?

“The major problem of life is learning how to handle the costly interruptions. The door that slams shut, the plan that got sidetracked, the marriage that failed. Or that lovely poem that didn’t get written because someone knocked on the door.” ~ MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (1929 – 1968)

Discussion #3: Do as I say, not as I do.

Given that most of us can’t get it right all the time, is it just more good advice?

          • Someone suggests you be more approachable to invite opportunity and better relationships, but you hide behind your desk.
          • Is the advice wrong if a boss is not patient or thankful but suggests that you should be?

When I find myself indulging in being grumpy, I’ve found it helpful to remember four things:

          1. I’m a grown-up.
          2. It’s not about me.
          3. I won’t be here forever.
          4. I want to make good things happen for others (which, in turn, will make good things happen for me).

Do as I Say Discussion Questions:

          1. What connected most with you from the article? Why?
          2. Why do you think someone’s hypocrisy makes it easier for us to disregard their advice?
          3. What does “Go first … and stay with it” mean?
          4. How do you think we can better minimize our occasional negative moods?
          5. What would you add or revise to overcome grumpiness?

My conclusion

It’s always the leader.

  • We try to hire the right people. We do our best to develop and grow those people.
  • But we get busy and stop listening. Take a few moments each month to use these questions to prompt a conversation.

Listen.

  • You will be surprised, even shocked, with what you will learn.
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