I was flying to a business meeting with an associate when he told me he didn’t think I was a very good leader. (Ouch!)
Sensing that God had sent a messenger to tell me that I lacked humility, I took the bait and asked him why. He explained that it was because he’d never seen me yell at anyone. In his experience, leaders had an edge that was best expressed through explosive decibels, with veins bulging from their foreheads. He was looking for my inner marine sergeant to come out and play.
He was dead serious, and I was stunned. I had never linked vocal volume to good leadership.
Part of it is the way I was raised. My dad got quiet when he was upset. His voice would get even lower and more measured. This was the way he made sure he had your attention.
And while he was remaining calm, my mother was asking questions—lots and lots of questions. That’s how she worked through anger, with curiosity. Her favorite question was to ask me about the outcomes I was trying to produce with my latest escapade.
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” —John Quincy Adams
Without being too political—because many of you will stop reading—it has been fascinating to watch how America is judging its leaders lately. You often hear phrases like “he says it like it is” or “he’s a fighter” to rationalize behavior that seems less than “leaderly.”
So the rapid pace of change, politics and my lesson in perception at 30,000 feet have me thinking about leadership—more specifically, what the best leaders I know share in common.
In my humble opinion, you simply cannot be a great or even a good leader unless you embody these three traits.
#1 You Must Be Worthy of Trust
Recently when challenged about going over an agreed-upon time allotment for video game play, my teenage son said, “Would you rather I just lie to you about the time I am online?” My response was simple: “No, I would rather you did what you said you were going to do. I need to be able to trust you.”
Good leaders are trustworthy; they are worthy of trust. If they tell you they are going to do something, they do it. If they can’t do it for some reason, they apologize and tell you why.
Honesty and trust are the fundamental ingredients in integrity. I’ve never, ever met a great leader with low integrity.
When was the last time you had to violate a commitment you had made to your team? How did you handle it? Did you trust yourself and them enough to have an honest conversation about it?
These questions are critical because the fish really does stink from the head down. A leader who is not trustworthy creates an organization full of people who do not trust each other. #bad
Which leads us to our next characteristic.
#2 You Must Be Accountable
President Truman famously had a sign on his desk that said, “The Buck Stops Here.” Leadership is messy. Mistakes happen. Good leaders first take responsibility for mishaps and then work with their teams to assess what happened and build a better strategy for the future.
The military uses a practice called an “After-Action Review” to ensure learning and optimal performance. The first step of the AAR is for the leader to take full responsibility for what happened and to make it clear that it is about learning and NOT assigning blame.
The leader must first be accountable before asking his/her team for areas of improvement. It is the only way to ensure learning over fear and loathing.
A typical AAR includes the following questions:
- What was supposed to happen?
- What actually happened?
- Why were there differences?
- What worked, what didn’t and why?
- What might I do differently next time?
Do you own the mistakes and mishaps as readily as you claim responsibility for things that go right? Real leaders don’t look to blame; they take responsibility and look to learn.
Which leads us to our last—and most difficult—leadership characteristic.
#3 You are a learner, not a knower
Being a life-long learner is perhaps the trickiest leadership trait to retain. Most people believe that as you mature as a leader, you are expected to be an expert, which means you know all or at least most of the answers. I’ll admit that this is what I thought as a younger person. Turns out, I was wrong (again).
The best leaders understand that questions are more powerful than answers. And it’s pretty difficult to ask good questions when you think you know all the answers. Your team begins to see you as the man behind the curtain—The Great and Powerful Oz. Your team rightly begins to sense a trap.
The next time you sense a gap in your understanding, ask these simple questions:
- What is the outcome we need to make happen?
- What stands in our way?
- Who has already figured this out?
When you and your team are consistently asking and answering these questions, you will have succeeded in creating a group of leaders.
These are three questions great leaders ask their teams. The result of these questions is strategic conversations from people learning to be great leaders.