Qualities of Leadership

As I’ve observed various leaders with different styles over the years, I believe effective leaders demonstrate the following three qualities: the ability to project authority, the ability to descry big picture patterns, and the ability to inspire.

Effective leaders project an aura of command. They don’t shy away from making decisions. They reassure their teams by projecting self-confidence in their own ability to lead.

Of course, true self-confidence is a by-product of consistently delivering results. To the end, effective leaders are superior pattern matchers. Pattern matching means finding useful patterns in data and in the world around them. In other words, effective leaders are insightful. They are able to look at a given situation or set of facts in their domain of expertise and draw useful conclusions.

Pattern matching requires three things: depth of knowledge (the overarching principles), depth of experience (what’s worked before and what hasn’t), and, least importantly, cognitive horsepower. Effective leaders pattern match on two levels: tactical and strategic.

On a tactical level, effective leaders, when brought problems, are able to react by asking good questions (often questions that snap the problem into focus), ingesting the available data, and making informed, defensible decisions.

On a strategic level, effective leaders proactively see big problems and opportunities others miss, and communicate these insights persuasively.

Finally, effective leaders inspire. They do this on two levels: individually with the leaders that report to them and other key personnel as well as team-wide.

On an individual level, leaders inspire by listening thoughtfully. They seek opinions and focus their complete attention on the answers given. They deliver developmental feedback clearly and timely but with a presumption (if earned, or at least not lost) of best intentions. They show great pride in their people, leaving them feeling appreciated and recognized. They act to ensure their people know that the leader has their back. They show gratitude–they make an effort to let their people know they matter.

On a team-wide level, leaders inspire by actively projecting (reasonable) optimism. (Someone once told me that the most optimistic person in the room was probably also the leader, and to some extent I think that’s true; optimism = “can do” = more likely to succeed.) They make personal connections with as many team members as possible. They take the time to convey to everyone on the team what patterns they are seeing, how they intend to respond, and how it affects the team.

There are myriad other models of leadership out there–most of them likely more prescriptive than mine–but this is the model that emerges from my observations. Certainly, this is the leader I strive to be. I’d be interested in your insights about qualities of effective leaders.


3 thoughts on “Qualities of Leadership

  1. Zackery

    Great succinct list Bob. I would agree on this completely. On the Inspiration topic there is a area I define for all leaders in my life. I call it the “fall on the sword %”. This is the likelihood that a leader will fall on the sword for the people they lead or throw those people under the bus. Most often I think leaders get a low rating in this area because of 2 things, one is fear, they fear the negative result of taking the bullet more then the damage they do by breaking trust. The 2nd thing, gets into humility and servitude to others. Most leaders that get a low percentage of FOTS% because of their lack of humility or servitude probably don’t do anything actively to throw others under the bus, they just don’t feel a need, a responsibility to take that bullet naturally.
    Love this blog posting, well said.

  2. Zackery

    Would like to add an addendum/addition to my above response. One new item I have found interesting in my latest “leadership research” is this idea of contrasting. It is the ability of good leaders to do just that, Contrast. When everyone else is doing one thing, they do or try something different. When everyone agrees they make an argument to disagree or at least raise the point. They rarely get blinded by assumptions or predispositions and are always monitoring black and white or up and down to make sure all doors have been opened and encouraging testing of doors by others as well. Thanks!

    1. robertmulcahy Post author

      Hi, Zack. Totally agree. Following the herd isn’t leadership, and speaking up in the face of consensus takes courage–a hugely important element of leadership.


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