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The Characteristics of Effective Leaders


Fri Sep 17 2021

The Characteristics of Effective Leaders

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Effective leaders come in all shapes and sizes. They can be high school teachers, football coaches, corporate CEOs, pastors of churches, research scientists, politicians, or civil rights activists. Armed with that knowledge, I was honored recently to co-author a book called Lessons From Leaders with Marshall Goldsmith and Kathy McDermott. We spoke with 15 leaders from every walk of life. While each was unquestionably unique, there were also some noticeable commonalities I have summarized under the umbrellas of THINK – FEEL – DO for your review and reflection.


Effective leaders are thoughtful people. In emotional intelligence terms, they have impulses just like everybody else, but they exercise discipline and employ reality testing before acting on those triggers. They proactively consider the consequences of their actions across multiple dimensions.


Case in point: the often-told story of Alan Mulally at Ford during his first meeting with his leadership team. The company was in a tailspin when he took over. When his team began to brainstorm potential ideas for recovery, Mulally removed himself from the process as a contributor. Did he have viable ideas based on his career experience at Boeing? Undoubtedly. But he also knew that impassioned ownership of the path forward by that leadership team was crucial. This was a calculated move and an unprecedented and highly nontraditional response on the world’s largest stage.

Net: Effective leaders play chess, not checkers!


Effective leaders help the people around them feel comfortable. Comfortable to be themselves. Comfortable to ask for help when they need it. Comfortable to share information when they have it and, probably more important than anything else, comfortable with delivering bad news. By their nature, organizations create separation. There are different levels, different titles, and different pay grades. Separation creates fear. Fear negatively affects engagement, and engagement affects productivity and employee retention.

With increasing regularity, we are seeing leaders like Hubert Joly (recently retired CEO from Best Buy) who are personally and strategically waging war with corporate fear. Among other issues, as he began this battle, Joly wore a name badge when he took over at Best Buy that read “CEO in Training.” He visited every store. When he spoke with employees, he asked them about their dreams and how work fit into helping each of them fulfill (or get closer to) fulfilling those dreams. Joly understood (and professed) that business results are an outcome and an imperative—but they are a function of genuine employee engagement.

Net: Effective leaders build trust and drive engagement by enhancing workplace dignity.



Effective leaders respond in a manner that reflects the emerging circumstances they are attempting to impact in the moment. They recognize the importance of organizational resiliency in a world that is becoming increasingly defined by ongoing, unending, disruptive change (and the daunting tasks and exponentially increasing complexity that comes with successfully completing those tasks). They also recognize that resiliency at an organizational level is a function of individual leader-managers in the organization to adapt to the situations and surroundings that come their way. And they realize there is no “best” leadership style. Each style (empowerment, collaboration, and direction) works, and each style doesn’t. It all depends! And, because your success as a leader is in large part a function of circumstances you can in no way control, effective leaders are dedicated to expanding their proficiency with each approach.

Net: Effective leaders expand their range and enhance their ability to adapt.

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