Competence. Integrity. The ability to see the big picture. There are undoubtedly many qualities that make a leader great. And a lot of these traits have been identified and documented through years of research on the topic.
But what good is knowledge when you don’t have a way to implement it? After all, CLOs can’t exactly go around handing out a list of 100 desirable traits and telling leaders to get busy. This was a problem that Mike Mears, former chief of human capital for the CIA and current learning consultant and author, struggled with for years.
“I started gathering data on about 8,000 bosses in the [CIA] and in other places over a 16-year period,” he explained. “I would have employees rate them so I could get a handle on what the ‘leadership coefficient’ [was]. I collected about 60 attributes for great leaders and 60 attributes of horrible leaders, but then I kept thinking, ‘This is a completely useless list.’ So I kept thinking about it [and] I found that I could align every one of those leadership attributes just under two things.”
The “two things” were actually just two sides of the same coin: trust. A great leader is trustworthy himself and can trust others.
“So, for example, being trustworthy: Obviously that [involves] integrity, that’s competence. [To] trust others [includes] things like delegating: When you delegate to me, you’re showing you trust [me],” Mears said.
On the flip side, bosses typically are labeled ineffective when they are perceived as autocrats or micromanagers — both of which would imply that they have a hard time trusting others — or when they’re believed to be “buddy bosses” — those who are smiley and talkative but provide little oversight and often don’t challenge employees, ultimately resulting in them being considered untrustworthy.
“Think about the worst boss you ever had and the best boss, jot down those traits under those two categories, add some, and, by golly, you’ve captured 90 percent of what leadership’s all about,” Mears said.
With these qualities boiled down into two main categories, Mears offered a few tips for becoming a better leader:
- Be aware of yourself and others. “I guess the first rule is: Do no harm as a boss,” Mears said. “Make sure that you’re not inadvertently inflicting social pain on people. It really does require setting up some feedback systems to make sure [you know] what the troops are really thinking, how [you’re] coming across, where [you] should pull back.”
- Create an inclusive work environment. “Another part is simply [to] establish safety with people. As long as they don’t feel safe in your presence, you can’t move to the next step and establish trust,” Mears said. “And if you can’t establish trust, you’ll never get to the next step, which is establishing clarity about expectations, rules of the road, how much risk they can take and so forth. All the great things we do in adult education and training apply to leadership: Get the cold class warmed up!”
- Encourage participation in meetings and presentations. “Don’t lecture,” Mears said. “Get [employees] to participate so they have insight that they gain about the subject matter.”
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