Should you be confident or humble, aware or focused, decisive or empathetic? These are just six of the generally accepted nine traits that leaders need to perfect and juggle; the last three being accountable, ethical, and inspirational. How you select to balance them is situational. When making unpopular decisions, you may need more humility to get buy-in and support. Urgent situations may require more confidence. Diversity may require more awareness. How you address leadership in varying situations takes knowledge of the situation and introspection on who you are and how you work. In a prior article, Leadership Strategies, we talk about the general style-wise approach to dealing with meetings and other interactions, here we look at the traits affecting our style and how they may need to be adjusted.
Two traits are undeniably required to be an effective leader—accountability and ethics. Leaders are responsible and accountable for decisions—whether made by them or delegated to others. It is extremely important to remember that leaders may delegate decision-making, but not accountability. In addition, leaders share the celebration of successful decisions, however, they take responsibility for less successful ones.
Unfortunately, accountability is too often translates to who-gets-fired-when-things-go-wrong. The media propagates this perversion. A who-to-blame attitude is the antithesis of leadership. Leaders do not blame. We talk about this more in a future article on leaders’ actions.
Ethics is at the core of a healthy organization’s culture. Without ethics, all is lost. Project teams in vibrant, honest organizations, report status accurately. Unpleasant news brings offers of assistance as opposed to criticism. The challenge is definitional differences across cultures. Leaders need to adjust their ethics to meet their own core values and those of the external cultures.
Honesty and directness are components of ethics. It is much better to deliver the truth tactfully than to leave a point unmentioned. Even if the intention is to protect others from harsh news, tactful delivery is better than the omission of fact.
Ethics and accountability are requisite traits for leaders. Without these traits, people are not leaders; they are just lousy executives or politicians.
Leaders make decisions. They do not yield to popular views or demands and have the courage to look at solutions that are outside the mainstream—regardless of the personal cost. They are adaptive and effective in rapidly changing environments, having the ability to discern several issues, simultaneously handling a variety of problems, and making course corrections as required.
Projects languish in indecision; they need hundreds or thousands of decisions to be successful. Everyone in the project stack needs to make decisions. Hence, everyone from the individual contributor to the executive sponsor needs to be leaders. People in authority make decisions that affect a wide range of stakeholders while people closer to the execution make decisions focused on their area of expertise.
Decisiveness is balanced with empathy and awareness. Any time a decision is escalated it is because consensus cannot be met at a lower level. Hence, a large percentage of the people affected by a decision will disagree with any decision made. For a leader to make a decision that people support, he or she must understand both sides of the decision and exhibit that knowledge to allay everyone’s concerns. People who feel a decision did consider their concerns are very unlikely going to support it.
Listening is the cornerstone of empathy. Empathy is often in opposition with decisiveness—it takes time and delays decisions. Leaders’ ability to listen empathically builds their understanding of employees’ and clients’ situations allowing them to find constructive solutions to problems. It increases the decision makers awareness. It enables a “oneness” that knowledge alone cannot provide. Knowledge is simply facts and figures. Empathy gives a leader the ability to take raw data, apply the context of the situation. This develops an accurate understanding of the problems that need to be addressed.
Empathy is also the basis of trust. We rarely trust someone that is not empathetic to our needs.
Leaders are naturally curious about their surroundings; they keep abreast of what is happening, but not in a meddlesome manner. System-wide awareness gives them the context to provide advice. They see things in a broader scope than others do. This gives leaders the ability to understand people and situations better.
Nearly any book on great leaders highlights one particular trait that is evident in leaders—focus. Focus is a core tenet of great leadership. Focus translates to ‘do what you do best and do it to the best of your ability.’ Leaders do not look for the next fad or react to the latest whim. They know that capricious changes in direction destroy morale and productivity. Leaders have their eyes on the prize.
The correct balance between awareness and focus is not easy. Being too focused leads to overlooking outside opportunities or threats. Being too aware distracts you from the work at hand.
The ability to be confident in yourself and supporting team is central to gaining trust. Self-confidence allows leaders to help others build confidence. Confidence supports other traits such as decision-making, accountability, and focus.
Confidence can border on hubris. The 1952 commitment to build a 100-passenger commercial jet aircraft (the 707) or a decade-and-a-half later taking the lessons learned from designing a large military cargo plane and applying them to a commercial aircraft of twice the 707’s capacity—the 747—when Boeing did not even have a building big enough to build the plane, are great examples of that hubris.
Humility balances confidence. Being too confident creates an air of cockiness that grates on people’s nerves. Reflecting back on many great leaders and you will find they are generally humble people. They avoid talking of themselves, and instead, defer to mentioning other people’s contributions. Beware of confusing the hubris of successful business people with great leaders—a successful business person is not necessarily a great leader.
Humility gives leaders the ability to honestly share business successes with others and build allegiances.
Inspiration comes from a vision—grandiose or small. Leaders set high standards and achieve goals. Project managers, similarly to CEOs, must work with their core team to paint a vision for achieving the project’s or corporation’s goals. Regardless of their level in the organization, leaders must maintain a clear vision and clarify any adjustments to meet changes in the business climate.
How do You Measure Up?
Accountability and ethics are the two traits you must have to start playing the leadership and project management game. Without those, you will never succeed. The other seven traits are aspirational… to a degree. You can survive being weak on one or two, being deficient at many more and you will struggle to succeed. Fortunately, people can change these traits, it is hard, takes time, but they can change.
What is your experience with “leaders” who needed to upgrade their skills? Without using names, share how you helped them change? Maybe that person was yourself.
Learn more about avoiding project failure and filling the gaps that cause failures in your organization. Todd C. Williams has devoted his career to understanding and filling those gaps.
As the name implies, Rescue the Problem Project: A Complete Guide to Identifying, Preventing, and Recovering from Project Failure, an Amazon #1 bestseller, focuses on project actions.
His latest book, Filling Execution Gaps: How Executives and Project Managers Turn Corporate Strategy into Successful Projects, Mr. Williams covers the six gaps that cause projects to fail—an absence of “common understanding,” goal-project misalignment, lackluster leadership, ineffective governance, disengaged executive sponsors, and poor change management.
Todd provides the right guidance on how to establish an effective change management organization. This is a must read before undertaking of your next organizational project, as it will help you avoid many pitfalls which drive delays or project failures.
John T. Lenga, Jr., CEO, Head Business Group North America