What are some of the characteristics of a great leader?

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The list is well documented in many best-selling books, but I'd like to focus on some of the traits and behaviors that aren't often mentioned. They can be the subtle but powerful difference between a really good leader and one of the great ones. As an executive coach, I am privileged to work with some brilliant and skilled executives. I have also learned a lot from being the "fly on the wall" in hundreds--maybe thousands-- of meetings. In my opinion, great leaders are:
 
Authentic
Authentic leaders don't play a role--they are completely themselves. They don't act one way with their boss and a different way with their own staff. People often say "He is genuine and down to earth." Colleagues like and trust authentic leaders because they see consistency and stability and don't have to wonder what the hidden agenda might be. 
 
Willing to "Open their kimono"
I don't know where this phrase comes from, but I hear it a lot lately in corporate circles. I like what it suggests--that this person isn't afraid to be vulnerable and open to the advice and feedback of those around them. They expose their honest thoughts, so others can react to them in an equally open way. While some fear they will look weak if they reveal too much of themselves, or leave themselves too open, great leaders are so strong they aren't afraid of showing vulnerability. 
 
Plain spoken
They don't quote management theory, or try to impress people with twenty-five dollar words. They are plain spoken and real in their communications. They don't use corporate speak to convey their opinions--they just say it from the head and the heart. So, instead of saying, "From a corporate perspective, the due diligence required to convert this endeavor to a workable enterprise," they might say, "I think this is going to take more hours than it's worth and here's why..."
 
Demonstrate humility
If they make a mistake they admit it. They aren't afraid to say they don't know something, but will find out. They are quick to bring other people in to solve a problem, particularly if those people have more expertise than they do. They will hire people who have more skills and they are willing to give them visibility to people above them.
 
Self-deprecating
An intelligent leader who shows off her intelligence will never go as far as one who pokes fun at herself. It simply makes her easier to be around. It strips away any veneer of arrogance and superiority. Self-deprecation has a leveling affect and makes a brilliant person feel human, like the rest of us. It can be the difference between, "Who does she think she is? We're not a bunch of dummies!" and, "She is brilliant and yet she doesn't think she is better than the rest of us...even though she is the smartest person in the room."
 
Fun
Great leaders don't take themselves or their work so seriously that they lose their joy. In the darkest hour, they will use black humor to crack everyone up and release the tension. They are the one in the turkey suit handing out gift certificates for Thanksgiving turkeys. After a rough week, he will buy drinks at the local watering hole, or bring in pizzas at lunch for some decompression time and renewal. His jokes are never mean spirited or aimed at anyone in a hurtful way and sarcasm doesn't feel like a knife in a velvet glove. He just makes work fun.
 
 
Balanced
You don't usually get a 3:00am email from a balanced leader, unless the wheels have come off the bus and everyone is working around the clock on a crisis. She takes enough personal time for her family and has her priorities straight. You won't see her micromanaging her team, since she knows she can't be involved in every detail. She has other interests besides work and is both well rounded and grounded. And if all hell does break loose, she is the one with a cool head directing people in a steady, confident voice.
 
Get pleasure from growing others
Like proud parents on graduation day, great leaders get enormous satisfaction from grooming and mentoring their employees. Given the choice, they would rather see one of their up-and-coming stars make a great presentation to senior management than get accolades themselves. They have a well-known reputation for competence and don't feel they have to grab the spotlight. Their teams usually out-perform other departments because people thrive when they are challenged and encouraged to stretch. These leaders are smart enough to know that being a hero is a lot less valuable to the organization than being a developer of heroes.
 
Focused on what's best for the organization
Their priorities are clear; the organization's needs trump their own wants. It keeps them customer-centric. It also helps them make effective decisions, since the needs of the organization will provide a clear set of criteria for weighing options. It drives collaboration across departments, rather than myopic self-interest, because that is what the organization requires for maximum results.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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