The (Not Exact) Characteristics of a Successful Leader

Once upon a time, a CEO I worked with critiqued the difference between our leadership styles.  He told me, “You’re like a coconut.  You’re hard on the outside, but soft on the inside.  People think you’re tough until they get to know you.  Then they realize you care about them.”

He then said something shocking.  He said, “I’m just the opposite.  Everybody likes me instantly.”  “But I’m hard on the inside,” he continued, waving his arm at a group of people working for his company.  “I could care less if any of them walked outside and got hit by a car.”

What was shocking to me was not his statement, but that he admitted it.  He was not a very nice person, but he was so confident that he could admit it and not care what people thought about him.

This CEO started with a few people and built a publicly-traded company.  As could be expected, he’s not good at maintaining long-term relationships with most of his employees.  Once they figure him out, they move on.  He can’t be trusted; I’ve seen him break contracts that he signed, but later decided not to honor.  Plus, every few months, the company had a new strategy.

Nonetheless, he’s been successful if judged only in terms of building a company and creating wealth.  He has the smarts, he’s crafty and he has tremendous confidence.

That caused me to think about what the characteristics of a successful leader are.  There are thousands of books on the topic.  If you google “what makes a good leader,” in a fraction of a second, you get more than 1.5 million entries.

Having been an attorney who’s worked with hundreds of companies and in leadership roles myself, what I’ve learned is that there is no one type of leader.  No one combination of characteristics exists that leads to the corner office at the top of the skyscraper.

Vision is overrated.  It’s important, but once you have the vision, you need to be able to act on it.  This requires a certain amount of organization – the ability to get things done.  You need ambition, so that you actually do act on it.  And you have to make people believe in you; that’s where the confidence comes in.  Plus, there are a few other traits that the books mention, such as keeping cool under pressure and making tough decisions on time, among others.

Yet good leaders come in a myriad of combinations.  What works in one organization or situation may utterly fail in another.  So to say that there’s any one, two, five or ten characteristics that define a leader is wrong because the mix of traits or lack of any one trait depends on the company, the circumstances and the individuals involved in the endeavor.

A difference exists, though, between leaders and those that stand out as great leaders.  The great ones I’ve met have the ability to listen, and let people feel like they’ve been listened to.

And I do think integrity is critical.  The CEO I mention above was successful, but was constantly losing good people.  Had he kept them, his company would have been much larger and much more profitable.

General Colin Powell offers some good thoughts in this leadership primer.

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