What makes an effective leader? I recently read an excerpt from Marvin Bower’s (McKinsey managing partner from 1950-1667) 1997 book, The Will to Lead, which dives into what makes an effective leader.
I am always amazed that some combination of the attributes I have highlighted below is repeated in virtually every leadership article I read.
What makes a leader?
Bower says, “Trustworthiness is integrity in action.” Trust between leaders and their constituents opens up very clear lines of communication, making it easier to achieve common goals. Bower asserts that leaders should always tell the truth “if for no other reason than it is simpler,” but I feel it goes even deeper than that. If your employees and clients can’t trust you, there’s no way you can effectively lead a company.
Managers can use authority haphazardly in order to get things done, which can give an impression of being unfair to those working under him/her. Being perceived as an unfair boss greatly effects how much your staff trusts you (see above) and some might even go so far as to see it as a character flaw. If fairness becomes a part of the corporate culture, the entire organization benefits. People will forgive a lot, but not usually unfairness.
Ego and arrogance can be poisonous to effective leadership, though it’s also hard to be “hypocritically humble” as Bower says. He then points out that Robert K. Greenleaf, former director of management research at AT&T coined a great term for this concept – servant leadership. A good leader should always keep in mind the needs of his subordinates in order to better manage and stay focused on company performance.
Those in command don’t always listen well, and this can turn off valuable people from coming forth with an idea. Sometimes, managers can close off discussion and opportunities to learn by too quickly expressing their own views in the conversation. Active listening and interacting helps the other party know they’re truly being heard. One thing that Bower makes sure to note is that it is crucial to be mindful of how listening customs vary across different cultures.
This is key and goes hand in hand with active listening, as discussed above. Top leadership can fall into an ego trap where excessive self-assurance can lead to arrogance and being closed minded, which isn’t a great way to keep focused on what’s truly important in order to keep your organization moving forward. If you come across as closed-minded, your staff might be less willing to speak up with new or radical ideas that might really be the best course of action. Bower points out that open-minded leaders tend to have better judgment and decision-making abilities due to their increased objectivity.
Sensitivity to People
Bower makes a key distinction by pointing out this is not just “being good at dealing with people,” which often has negative and manipulative connotations. If you consider your staff as real people with real lives, you have a better chance of reaching a place of empathetic objectivity and that’s a great place to make decisions from. People aren’t always forthcoming with non-work issues, but a good leader can sense what’s going on without prying too much. This also includes being sensitive to one’s own feelings, and how non-work issues might be impacting your actions in the workplace.
Strong leadership is important to the success of all organizations, of all sizes, in all industries. Finally, it was refreshing to note that Mr. Bower believed these attributes could be learned.