People Matter – 10 attributes of a great leader

Who is a leader?

First let’s start with the question, “who is a leader?”  Many people assume that a leader is limited to the CEO of a company, the President of a country, the Principal of a school, or someone that has responsibility for many people and telling them what to do.  I would argue that they are managers; they manage people and tasks, but are not necessarily leaders.

To me, a leader is someone that inspires and enables others to accomplish things.  In addition to managers, it might be an athlete, a role-model in school, a team member, a drum major, soccer coach, activist, etc. In fact, I believe each one of us can and should be leaders. Imagine if we were all inspiring and enabling others, this would be a much better place.

Next, is the old debate, “is a leader born or made?”  I believe some people are born with leadership qualities and thus have a head start.  However, I strongly believe the attributes necessary to be a strong leader are habits that anyone of us can learn and practice.  As I look back on my journey in life and especially the self-discovery over the past few months, I personally have been seeking understanding related to true leadership.  Many of the self-development areas like, self-awareness, practicing new habits, being in the moment, the power of listening, loyalty, humility, empowerment of friends and not sweating the small stuff are critical to strong leadership.

Are you a leader? 

Do you consider yourself a leader?  If not, why? What do you feel you would need to do differently to be a leader?  We all have it in us to inspire and enable others.  I was fortunate as a student to attend a few leadership events.  I participated in HOBY’s (Hugh O’Brien Youth) leadership program my sophomore year of high school.  Their mission is to inspire and develop our global community of youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service and innovation.  (Sound familiar?!) I was learning the skill and values, while meeting role models at an early age.

Another memorable leadership lesson was bandcamp in 11th grade.  Yes, bandcamp, a leadership program for Drum Majors, because I would be leading the marching band during my senior year. (Go ahead, you can giggle because it reminds you of the line, “One time in bandcamp…”  from American Pie).  I remember receiving the advice, ‘Leaders lead from behind.”  Obviously to a kid, this struck an odd cord with me.  How could that be? If I was going to be leading the band, I should be out front setting the tempo, the pace and the tone for the rest of the band to follow.  The advice went on to describe that a good leader has their teams’ back. They don’t need to be out in front screaming, ‘look at me’.  Rather they are coaching, guiding and giving the glory to the folks doing all the hard work.  That concept lived with me for a long time and served me well over the years in leadership positions.

Servant Leadership

I was often asked about my leadership style.  I would immediately respond, “I lead from behind.”   I couldn’t articulate much more than the statement. I often felt some viewed that position as passive leader and not a driver.  It took me many years to finally put a title to my management style and validate what I always knew in my gut.  I was a strong servant leader.

A servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. As the setter on my volleyball team, I recall my coaches reminding me that I had the responsibility to keep the spirits of my teammates up.  If a bad pass came to me, it was ‘my bad’.  If a spiker missed the kill, it was ‘my bad’.  I was to absorb the mistakes, inspire and enable the team to get it back on the next serve.  I was being trained to be the quiet leader on the court.

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

The opposite of servant leadership is a command and control style.  Bingo, that explains it all!  I learned about servant leadership in high school and used it as a core basis to develop my style over the years.  I struggle with those that simple tell people what to do and choose not to explain WHY they need to do something.  To me, people matter.  A leader’s job is to inspire and enable others to feel their best and give their all.

Kathy’s 10 key attributes of a strong leader

There has been much research and discussion about what makes a strong leader.  You can read numerous articles and books on the subject.  I thought I would share my opinion which pulls together much of what I learned most recently, correlated with my life long experiences.

Self-awareness Power of Listening: being able to listen to yourself and those around you to understand your weaknesses, your strengths and how you are perceived so that you can to adapt accordingly.
Mindfulness Pause: knowing where you want to go, where you currently are and what it will take to get there, while appreciating the journey.
Courage Path less traveled: making hard decisions to go against the known/expected and following your convictions. In the book, Magician’s Way by William Whitecloud there is a story about 2 paths. The first path is broad, paved, sunny path which will lead you to a Swamp. The other is dark, narrow, and overgrown which will lead you to the island.  A leader is willing to take the risks to get to the island.
Curiosity Can I ask you a question?: constantly learning, engaging others for their opinion and looking for ways to do things better.
Inspiration Vision: having conviction, passion and beliefs, along with the ability to articulate and explain them, to excite and motivate others to join you on the journey.
Empowerment Go you: providing insight to people about what they are good at, giving them opportunities to leverage those skills and recognizing/praising them for their accomplishments.
Enablement Why: taking the time to teach people the required skills, but also mentoring and explaining why you are doing something or why it is important for them to do it a certain way.
Accountability TEAM: There is no “I” in team.  Accountability is the willingness to call someone out in a caring way so that they can understand how to improve and not accept the status quo.
Gratefulness Thank you: using those words often to demonstrate your appreciation of everything; yourself and those around you
Empathy Walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins, need I say more?

A leader’s job is to set the vision, enable, empower and motivate others. Core to each of these attributes are people!  You can’t be a good leader without focusing on people.  Even if you are not the smartest or the strongest, if you focus on these attributes you can still be a strong leader.

Humility is the cornerstone of leadership

In my previous blog about humility I discussed common admiration for humble people and how the aspiration to be humble will help us be happier and less stressed.  I ended the blog referencing a number of articles, Harvard Business Review, Catalyst, Forbes, and Washington Post, that talk about humility being the cornerstone for great leaders.

I did not actually list humility in the list of attributes above because I believe that many of the attributes are requirements of a humble leader.  I believe it is easier to unpackage humility into these attributes so that we can better relate to them and practice them; like mindfulness, gratefulness, empathy, etc.  A humble leader recognizes that people matter and focuses on how to serve them and accomplish greatness.  I don’t believe you can be a good leader without being humble.

We are all leaders

Interestingly, but not by co-incidence, I think back to the blog I wrote about my experience on the catamaran where I bonded with some extraordinary women.  The attributes I talked about in that blog (Pause, Curiosity, Appreciation/Empowerment, Power of Listening) were all strong characteristics of these ladies.  I called out those characteristics as core to my valued leadership attributes because these women are all LEADERS!  People want to follow them; they are inspired by them and are loyal to them.

In my last role, I had a mix of direct reports, some who were managing large teams and some who were individual contributors. I considered every one of them a leader.  If they were not leading a direct team, they had to work closely with peers and customers to influence them and lead them through change.  The same attributes applied.  You don’t need to be managing a team to be a leader.  Quite honestly, these are attributes that will serve us well as spouses, parents, siblings, children, coaches, mentors and friends.  As I mentioned in my last post, Why is “You throw like a girl” an insult we would be a much better society if we were all humble leaders.

People Matter

It has been proven that happy people accomplish more.  Happiness is also contagious. As a leader it is our responsibility to serve others and help them find happiness (aka success).  Research has shown that employees/people who perceived altruistic behavior from leaders also reported being more innovative, engaging in greater citizenship behavior, going beyond the call of duty, and picking up the slack for an absent colleague, friend or family member.

May this inspire you to be a leader to your friends, family and colleagues and make this a better place.

You don’t need a title to be a leader – numerous people, including me

One Reply to “People Matter – 10 attributes of a great leader”

  1. Kathy – thanks for sharing your perspective and insights on leadership. Despite the number of books and articles I’ve read on the subject, this blog still provided me with inspiration and learning. I think the two biggest reminders I came away with from this blog are (1) that you lead no matter what position you have in an organisation and (2) others are looking at you and that what you do and how you act is more important than what you say.

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