Leadership Traits

A client recently asked me to help him identify leadership skills his son would need to develop to help him successfully takeover and lead the family business in a few years. He also wants to be able to evaluate all his managers on these skills on a scale of 1 (none/low) to 5 (exceptional).

From my 20 plus years of experience working with really good and not-so-good “leaders,” several skills stand out, but I’ll focus on just seven for now:

  1. Strategic Thinking – The ability to think beyond the day-to-day and override the natural tendency to see the difficulties proposed strategies may cause. Strategic thinking requires leaders to focus on what’s right for the organization: the employees and the customers now and into the future. Strategic thinking requires a willingness to deal with intangibles, unknowns, and risk. Strategic decisions are more often than not based upon experience and instinct, with enough research to hope projections hold true. Strategic thinking requires thinking of the whole, instead of the individual department previously managed. Strategic thinking requires continuously pushing forward to ask “What’s next?” instead of saying, “Ahh, we’ve finally arrived.”

  2. Opportunity Identification – Business development, business acquisitions, sales, mergers, product lines, service lines, etc. all fall in this category of opportunity identification. What is appropriate given what our organization is, does, and should be in the future? Closely linked with executive team strategic planning, opportunity identification often takes on a more individual approach and is done through the leader’s personal readings; tracking of world, regional, and local news events; observations during conversations over lunch at the club, in the bank, with colleagues, etc. It’s the leader’s individual ability to put the various puzzle pieces together into a probable picture of future opportunities.

  3. Infrastructure Development – The ability to realize that any solid house needs a solid foundation. Infrastructure development requires ensuring the boring and not-so-sexy things such as policies, procedures, manuals, protocols, facilities, equipment, land, etc. are all in place to allow the organization to effectively handle current operations, but also be well positioned to accommodate future, more sizable work volumes. Infrastructure development is a delicate dance of not over-acquiring or building and thus creating too much overhead, while at the same time, ensuring internal capacity to operate now and grow into the future.

  4. Financial Acuity – The ability to understand what the organization’s numbers are telling you in terms of where you were, are, and where you’re going. Leaders obviously understand the basics of cash flow, profit and loss, and balance sheets. However good leaders understand how business actions and inactions can cause the direct and indirect shifts in the numbers, as well as how to enhance the overall capital strength of the organization though business revenues, acquisitions, divestures, etc. Good leaders understand that “cash is king” and that big doesn’t necessarily mean better — if you can’t pay your bills. Smart growth is more important that growth for growth’s sake.

  5. Professional Networks – The gut-level understanding that strong, reliable networks of professional advisors, colleagues, competitors, associates, and friends will provide tremendous support, insight, and sounding board opportunities. These networks and associates are outside the organization and will often provide straight answers and insights that internal staff don’t see or are afraid to share. Professional networks provide opportunities to gain knowledge quickly, acquire various opinions to evaluate while holding no real decision-making power or authority over the leader. They’re sources of information. What’s more, a good leader often provides more to the network than is taken away.

  6. Brand/Goodwill Development – The understanding that without a solid reputation, your organization’s value diminishes. Every sale becomes harder. Every employee recruitment and hire takes longer. Every meeting with colleagues becomes a bit strained. Protecting and strengthening the organization’s name, reputation, and value becomes paramount to good leaders. Without it, they’re leading an entity no one wants to follow.

  7. Development of Others – The understanding that knowledge transfer and developing skills in others is crucial to any organization’s long-term success. We’ve all heard organizations say, “Our employees are our strongest asset” yet many of these same organizations refuse to spend more than bare minimum on employee training each year, and few have focused direct daily effort on developing their organization’s prospective future leaders. Good leaders have long realized the need to develop the above skills in their employees with leadership ambitions and abilities. Good leaders have for years been focusing on helping their organization’s future leaders prepare for personal and professional success. The success of the next generation of leaders will help ensure the organization’s success.

The above list isn’t all-inclusive, but it provides a sound basis to build upon. As elusive as most “good” things in life are, if the above were easy, every “leader” would possess them. They’re not easy. They’re somewhat innate and most assuredly they’re strengthened with practice over time. Rate your own leadership strength. On a scale of 1 to 5, how strong are you?