Successful leaders are often credited with having high social intelligence, the ability to embrace change, inner resources such as self-awareness and self-mastery, and above all, the capacity to focus on the things that truly merit their attention. These are desirable skills for everyone else, too.
"Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality," said Warren Bennis, a pioneer in leadership research, and it is generally a leader’s responsibility to develop a vision for the people and institutions they direct. They also need to effectively communicate their priorities to others and inspire them to commit to those goals as well. Leadership does not depend on one’s title. Leaders can emerge at any level if they can motivate those with whom they collaborate to strive toward a common goal.
Effective leaders likely share some key personality traits, including sociability, ambition, and curiosity—and these traits may be more relevant to the role than intelligence. Genetics appear to influence leadership ability, due to inherited personality traits, but environmental factors such as education and opportunity play a significant role as well.
Researchers estimate that leadership is about a third born and two-thirds made. Some inborn traits such as extraversion, assertiveness, empathy, and social intelligence are important elements of leadership, but training, education, self-development, and experience are at least as important.
Leaders cannot focus on tasks and strategies alone; they must also pay attention to relationships and morale. One of the best ways to do that is to foster a culture of gratitude, praising and thanking colleagues for the work they do and the ideas they contribute. Research finds that employees in such environments are more productive, and treat customers more courteously.
Charisma is hard to define but it generally involves the ability to signal one’s confidence and competence to others, and to convey understanding, through body language, rhetorical skills, and persuasion. Researchers are split on whether it is a necessary trait for effective leadership, but most at least see it as a signal of someone’s leadership potential.
Analyses of the qualities generally regarded as essential for effective leadership do not reveal any inherent superiority among men, yet far more men than women reach top leadership positions. One theory is that the qualities that help one become selected for such positions, like confidence, aggression, and charisma, may be more prevalent in men, but the traits of effective leaders, like emotional intelligence, humility, integrity, and coachability, are not.
The high-profile status of leadership attracts many individuals who score high in the personality trait of narcissism. In positions of leadership, narcissists may display charisma and even rally colleagues to perform in a crisis, but their sense of entitlement, resistance to criticism, striving for glory, and lack of empathy often leads to failure to build successful organizations.
Ineffective or irresponsible leaders can sink an organization, and yet individuals who reach positions of power often fall prey to the same errors and pitfalls. Nearly 40 percent of CEO resignations are prompted by failures of integrity such as fraud and corruption. When leaders put their personal vision ahead of ethics or practical realities, they put their positions and their organizations in jeopardy. The remedy, experts suggest, is creating cultures of openness.
Attaining power can make people overconfident about their abilities and judgment, leading them to take irresponsible risks. Compounding the problem, in many organizations few people feel emboldened to challenge leaders’ decisions. This combination is often cited in analyses of failed organizations. Management experts suggest that leaders actively seek out critical comments, either from within their organization or from third parties, and consider that feedback without bias.
Surveys find that as few as 1 percent of employees feel confident about airing their concerns. Organizations that welcome “employee voice”—upward communication that is constructive but challenging—have fewer errors and higher staff retention. Leaders can foster such a culture by staying open to others’ perspectives and through practices such as speaking last at meetings instead of first.
Becoming a manager of those who were once colleagues is one of the fundamental challenges facing new leaders. Balancing friendships with the needs of the organization is a primary struggle, but management experts suggest that focusing on positive results to establish credibility, and leading with fairness to establish respect, can help put awkwardness behind you.
Chief executives are not the only ones who lead. Members of teams across organizations large and small can bring colleagues together and help them achieve goals by shaping their work climate in small ways, through asking questions, offering support, articulating challenges, and fostering a safe and open environment.