In my work, I’m privileged to encounter great leaders everyday. These women and men come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some have spent their lives leading startups and others have focused on supporting established enterprises. Some work in the private sector and others have spent their careers leading non-profit organizations. They possess expertise in everything from tech and finance to people and design and hold expertise in multiple fields. Regardless of the industry or size of the organization they are leading, however, I’ve discovered that great leaders share a few things in common.
1. Vision: Without vision, you’re unlikely to ever become a great leader. Leaders always have a vision for the short- and long-term life cycle of an organization. They know where an organization needs to go in the next quarter and over the next decade. Their vision is usually bold, innovative, and may even be a bit quirky. They can see what others can’t.
2. Transparency: Great leaders put their cards on the table. They are upfront and frank about their vision and what they need their team to do to move this vision forward.
3. Agility: Amid constant change, great leaders are effective in different settings and situations. They see and anticipate challenges and thus can adapt proactively. When you’re agile, abrupt surprises, which are part and parcel of doing business, are handled with greater ease. Of course, in today’s disrupted economy, agility is especially important. This is why great leaders now need agility more than ever before.
4. Resilience: Resilience, or grit as I like to call it, is another essential quality of great leaders. From time to time, all leaders find themselves on terror’s edge. Perhaps, it is due to a market correction or because they suddenly find themselves managing a major merger or acquisition. Whatever the challenge, grit–the ability to face and manage one’s fears–is critical. It’s about listening inward and knowing how to manage one’s own stress and health while also leading a team through times of change.
5. Humor: There is nothing worse than a leader who can’t laugh when a good laugh is called for, including at their own foibles. There is also nothing better than a leader who truly understands that happy employees are more dedicated, present, and productive. Wondering how to bring humor into your workplace? Try taking a stand-up comedy class (I did it, and guess what, stand-up comedy is a lot harder and more impactful than you think!).
6. Humility: Great leaders know when to admit they were wrong. They consider humility an essential quality of leadership.
7. Serenity: Great leaders nearly always carry themselves with serenity. When they enter a room, it grows calmer rather than more agitated. They do more than “keep their cool under pressure.” They practice a serenity that is in turn makes those working on their team also feel less agitated and overwhelmed.
8. Gratitude: It may sound simple but expressing gratitude is powerful. Great leaders express thanks when they need to and most importantly, even when it might not be expected.
9. Balance: Everyone talks about work-life balance but few people practice it. Great leaders know when to shift gears and turn their attention away from work and on to life. They don’t feel guilty about their choices because they recognize that sometimes thriving on the job means making difficult choices about what to prioritize at work and in life. But great leaders also avoid trying to balance too many things. Great leaders aren’t great jugglers; they’re great decision makers. They maintain balance because they never find themselves juggling too many things in the air from the get go.
10. An Exit Strategy: Even great leaders retire. Knowing when and how to step down, however, is more important and complicated than many people realize. Indeed, especially when an organization’s vision is closely linked to a single leader, it is essential to have a carefully planned exit strategy and ideally, one that slowly disentangles the leader from the enterprise’s public face and brand. Great leaders also benefit from having a carefully structured exit strategy. After all, it is often especially difficult for people who thrive in leadership roles to finally move on to their next great venture.
Notice something about the above qualities of great leaders? Taken together, what these qualities point to is someone you would also likely welcome as a mentor, friend, and even life partner. While the Travis Kalanicks and Elon Musks of the world certainly do make a lot of headlines, most great leaders I encounter are confidently and quietly plotting a path forward with a great team at their side because they are guided by qualities that have much less to do with ego than with mindfulness.