Leadership characteristics

We noted earlier that the ultimate test of leadership characteristics list should be how the leader’s colleagues behave. That is, after al...

We noted earlier that the ultimate test of leadership characteristics list should be how the leader’s colleagues behave. That is, after all, what leadership is all about, and if you want to know how leaders ought to lead, you need to pay attention to those who are led. However, nearly everything written on the subject of leadership traits talks exclusively about what the leader should be or know or do differently.

The focus is nearly always squarely on the leader, not the subordinates. We think this leaves out an important part of the equation. Leadership development programs has a purpose and an expected outcome. The question to be asked is: “What has changed in the behavior of those being led?” One important dimension of becoming a better leader is to be clear about the outcomes you seek from those you lead.

Several streams of research are relevant to this question. It is hard to select from the many possibilities and desirable outcomes that could be included, but we have attempted to select those that have been shown to truly make a significant difference.

Leadership characteristics: PRODUCTIVITY

One outcome that we seek from a leader’s inspiration and motivation is that subordinates work more efficiently, that they produce more, and that what they produce has higher quality. To accomplish this, they work with greater speed and efficiency. As a result, there is less waste. In short, they are simply more productive.

Research conducted by Hunter, Schmidt, and Judiesch documented the huge differences in productivity among people occupying the same kind of position. Figure 3-1 summarizes that research.

Leadership characteristics
Those who work in large organizations know that the two people in a medium-complexity job who are at the extreme ends of the bell-shaped curve are making widely different contributions to the organization’s success. The one at the top is, in fact, making 12 times the contribution of the one at the bottom, but that person’s monetary compensation is often the same as or only slightly different from that of the person at the bottom.

Leaving aside the differences between the top 1 percent and the bottom 1 percent, the gulf between the top person at the ninety-ninth percentile and the person who is squarely in the middle is also quite dramatic. For medium-complexity jobs, that top person is more than doubling the contribution of the person in the middle. Our point is that these differences are not to be sneezed at. Big opportunities exist. Leaders should do their best to improve the productivity of everyone because there is obviously such a long distance for many to go before they reach the highest possible level.

What is the role of the leader in encouraging those in the upper quartile to be so highly productive? Clearly some of a worker’s effectiveness lies solely within himself. Maybe some of that is prewired and there from birth. Some of it is instilled by parents. We suggest that it is also strongly influenced by the person’s leader and the environment that that leader creates. Earlier we presented data showing the correlation between employee engagement and the quality of the leader. Leaders do something that elicits more focused, more consistent, and more creative outcomes.

Anyone who has ridden on a Swiss train can’t help marveling at the efficiency, the cleanliness, the on-time arrivals and departures, and the overall high level of productivity you experience on the trip. Is this the result of one specific leadership communication behavior? Obviously not. It begins with the leader caring about maintaining the Swiss tradition of punctuality and efficiency. It involves people putting forth great effort to correct anything that would disrupt the schedule, or to get back on schedule if there is a delay. The leader works to constantly improve the systems and processes. It is a host of things that every leader does that maintains this centuries-old tradition of excellence.

Productivity improvement is a convenient way of assessing whether or not a leader has been effective in influencing subordinates in a positive way. We wish to emphasize the importance of this outcome, as there is no question but that the leader plays an extremely crucial role in elevating the level of productivity in any organization. This is in part because the leader controls the processes that are being employed, which, in turn, have an enormous impact on the efficiency of every organization.

Frankly, we hesitated to list productivity first, primarily because one segment of our readers might already believe that this is the only important outcome of inspiration. This group would equate an inspired subordinate with one who produces more and ignore virtually everything else. We acknowledge the importance of productivity improvement, but we strongly argue that there are a number of other extremely important outcomes of inspiration. These other outcomes often contribute to higher levels of productivity, but they are extremely valuable in and of themselves.

Leadership characteristics: CONFIDENCE

Organizations succeed when their people act with leadership qualities like assurance and boldness. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, frequently wrote and spoke of this need to drive self-confidence down into the organization. What creates such confidence?

Stanford University professor of psychology Albert Bandura, whose research is cited more frequently than that of any other living psychologist, has been a longtime researcher on self-efficacy and confidence. He suggests that this comes when people feel that there is a high likelihood of success when they attempt something new.

Simply put, unless people possess high feelings of confidence or self-efficacy, there simply is no performance. It is too risky, as they see it. Investing your energy is not worth it unless you have a strong belief that you will succeed.

Because of this, one of the healthiest attributes for people to have is an abiding belief that if they attempt something, they will succeed. This encourages people in every area of the organization to push forward and upward. It is an outcome of inspiration. A confident salesperson is willing to approach a challenging new account. A confident engineer agrees to find a better way to design a product. A confident accountant agrees to produce financial statements shortly after the month ends. Confident manufacturing employees agree to produce to an extremely high standard of quality that will satisfy the most demanding client. In every area of the firm, it is confidence that encourages people to try things that are new and challenging. The key question is: “What gives people that confidence?”

Bandura contends that this comes from having had success in similar activities in the past. It also comes when failed attempts have not been punished by the leader. Bandura’s research on self-efficacy confirms that there are practical ways to enhance self-confidence.

He suggests that the most powerful approaches are these:
1. Vicarious learning (behavior modeling)
2. Mental rehearsal
3. Experiencing increasingly challenging tasks
4. Feedback from respected others

Leaders make these four things happen in the following ways:
1. The leader can arrange for appropriate training that includes excellent examples of the proper way to do things. Such learning experiences are referred to as behavior modeling or vicarious earning. This is the best way to teach anything that has a skill component. What exactly is this?

Teaching someone to play golf by reading a book is extremely difficult. Nothing compares to having someone stand nearby and explain the various clubs, then demonstrate how to hold the club, where to plant your feet, and how to take the right swing. Then the instructor asks you to do it and provides useful feedback on what you’re doing, along with suggestions for how to do it better. Many jobs benefit from that same approach to learning, whether it is a salesperson being trained to relate to a prospect or a customer service rep talking on the phone with a client who has experienced some problem with your product.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then watching someone assemble a carburetor or remove an appendix is worth ten thousand words. Most people learn best by watching good examples and understanding why the example was selected. It also helps if the elements that are combined to make such a good example are identified so that the learner is clear about the important steps that are being demonstrated.

Simply put, the most powerful way to give people a feeling of confidence and self-efficacy about their ability to perform some task is to teach them to do it very well and to let them know that their success was the result of their effort, persistence, and skill, not some uncontrollable external factors.

2. Leaders teach the value of mentally reviewing or rehearsing important events as a way to develop confidence. For years, sport psychologists have worked with professional athletes on the power of visualization as part of their preparation. The same practice can be applied effectively by many leaders. Confident people aren’t embarrassed to rehearse important conversations with customers. They welcome the chance to practice the presentation they’ll make to another department about the reasons for changing a work process.

3. Leaders build confidence by ensuring that people are given challenging assignments. When they delegate tasks, it isn’t just through the filter of “Who can get the job done on time and on budget?” but with an eye to the question, “Who will benefit the most from this project?” or “Who really needs this to further his career development?”

4. Leaders should be a main source of feedback. Without exception, studies show that people at every level, from senior vice presidents to the mailroom clerk, want a good deal more feedback than they typically get. That difference between what they want and what they get is not small, it is huge. And yes, most people especially appreciate positive feedback, but most also want to learn how they can perform at a higher level and will welcome developmental feedback, so long as the message is delivered in a respectful, constructive manner.

Feedback is especially helpful when it conveys, “You’ve almost got that right” or “You are 90 percent of the way there . . . just hang in there.”

The bottom line is, the overall level of confidence that everyone has is part of the culture of an organization. Leaders are the driving force in creating that culture and the attendant positive emotions within people.

Self-efficacy has been shown to predict work-related performance more powerfully than more traditional performance-enhancement initiatives such as goal setting or measures of job satisfaction.

Leadership characteristics: OPTIMISM AND HOPE

Leaders shape the way people feel about the future in the broadest and most profound way. We readily acknowledge that this quality begins at a very deep level for most people. It starts with the most basic questions every human must face. Does life have any real purpose and meaning? Is there some reason for my being here? Hope is enhanced when there is a belief that life is purposeful and that people exist for some higher reason. For some people, that nets out to a simple, “I want to make a difference.” Others see the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy.

In addition to having a broader view of the future, however, some people see the right side and the bright side of life in every dimension. A lot depends on what you are looking for. There is an old saying, “Seeing is believing.” But there is an even more accurate saying that suggests, “Believing is seeing.” We see what we’re looking for and what we want to believe. Two people observing the exact same event can “see” very different things. Working in an organization in which people see the bright side is a night-and-day difference from being involved with those who can see only the dark side. Leaders strongly influence the degree to which people have optimism and hope regarding the future of the organization and their role in it.

This is an extremely important dimension. An abundance of research clearly confirms that those who have higher levels of optimism are significantly happier and healthier, enjoy greater success in their occupations, have more lasting and happy relationships, and make greater contributions to their communities.

If you define optimism and hope as being in a “good mood,” Martin Seligman4 reports that “adults and children who are put into a good mood select higher goals, perform better, and persist longer on a variety of laboratory tests, such as solving anagrams.” He also muses about the relationship of overall happiness and productivity. Does high productivity cause happiness, or is it the other way around? He concludes, “Research suggests . . . that more happiness actually causes more productivity and higher income.”

Optimism can be learned and magnified through the practice of several behaviors. These include focusing on the positive dimensions of life and expressing gratitude to others for their contributions to your life. For more, see Seligman’s excellent treatise Learned Optimism.

Seligman studied life insurance salespeople at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and discovered that although agents were normally selected on the basis of their scores on a long-established industry test, if a test that measured optimism was used, those agents who scored in the top half on this test of optimism actually outsold those who scored in the pessimistic half by 37 percent. Agents who were in the top 10 percent on optimism outsold those in the bottom 10 percent on the same scale by 88 percent. The company then agreed to have a group of applicants take both the industry test and the optimism instrument. It then hired a “special force” made up of agents who had failed the industry test, but scored in the top half on the optimism instrument. The agents in this group sold as much as the optimistic agents who passed the industry test. They outsold the pessimistic agents who had passed the industry instrument by 21 percent in their first year, and then outsold their pessimistic counterparts by 57 percent in their second year. Seligman then found that among those who passed the industry test, optimists outsold pessimists by 8 percent in their first year and by 31 percent in their second year. Needless to say, the company opted to include a measure of optimism in its selection battery of tests.

Leadership characteristics: INITIATIVE

The inspired and motivated employee does not wait to be told to do everything, but instead looks around, sees what needs to be done, and begins to do it. Initiative entails stepping in to rescue something that is about to fall into a crack between two departments. Initiative describes the mentality of an “owner” rather than a typical “hired hand.”

Leaders create a culture in which people sense that this type of initiative will be rewarded, not punished. Doors have been opened. There is an emphasis on what people can do, not just on what they can’t do. Peter Drucker once remarked that “much of what we call ‘management’ consists of a variety of things that make it difficult for the typical employee to do his job.”

Employee handbooks go to great lengths to spell out the many things that can’t be done, but they seldom include any description of those things that can be done. Worse yet, an employee who ventures out and tries something without getting explicit permission is often rebuked rather than being rewarded.

Initiative is difficult to teach. But what leaders can do is create a climate of freedom that allows people to experiment and also reward those who take the initiative. Leaders signal in many subtle ways whether initiative is welcomed or viewed with suspicion. One of the coauthors of this book, Jack Zenger, tells of this experience:

An executive from a large San Francisco bank came by my hotel, picked me up, and took me to his office for a meeting we’d be holding in his building. We parked in the underground lot beneath the building. My friend mentioned, “You’ll get a kick out of our garage attendant.” So, I was on the alert to see what set this attendant apart from the norm. While most attendants greet customers with a nod or a grunt, this person was absolutely effusive. He greeted us by name and acted as if we were old high school classmates whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years. He asked about our plans for the day so that he’d know where best to park the car. He escorted us to the elevator bank, pressed the button to get an elevator car for us, and sent us on our way.

He had taken a job that some would see as being on the menial end of the spectrum and made it into a “calling.” He injected himself into his work and brightened everyone’s day in the process.

What distinguishes such people? They have the mentality to seek to do the most they can with their job, unlike the many who seek to do the least that is required. Leaders create the climate in which that behavior flourishes.

Leadership characteristics: RESPONSIBLE BEHAVIOR

Another outcome that we should seek in those we lead is for people to act with a high level of responsibility. People with higher levels of motivation enjoy being held accountable for outcomes and don’t place blame on others for any shortcomings in their own performance. Responsible people monitor and obtain information about their own and their group’s performance. Responsible people identify strongly with the group to which they belong and always put organizational goals before any personal objectives. Responsible people do things for which there is no immediate personal reward, but which clearly benefit the welfare of the organization.

A culture of responsibility and accountability is created when leaders convey a strong message that the people at large and teams are what counts, and that leaders are there to do blocking and tackling for the employees.

In the recent spate of scandals involving senior executives, several of them have claimed, “I didn’t know what was going on. I just signed the financial statements, and I was relying on my CFO.” Wisely, it appears that most juries don’t buy that foolishness.

Jack was an executive in a pharmaceutical firm that manufactured steroid chemicals in a plant in Mexico. The firm decided to transfer all its manufacturing to a newly constructed plant in the Bahamas. Pilot plant operations had been tested there and had worked. The Mexico facility was closed, and the new plant scaled up its production. However, for reasons that were unclear at the time, the new plant was unable to produce an acceptable product in sufficient volume to meet the firm’s commitments to its customers.

The CEO of the firm met with the assembled management team and said, “We could blame a lot of people for what has happened. But we all made this decision together. In hindsight, we should have been smart enough to know that scaling up production was risky. I want to take responsibility for this mistake. Now let’s do all we can to fix it and meet our customers’ needs as best we can. But let’s have no fingerpointing at the people in our chemical production division.”

When leaders own up to their mistakes, the pattern is established for others to do the same thing.

Leadership characteristics: ENTHUSIASM

Some people merely go through the motions. Others inject energy and passion into what they do. Some people appear to deliberately constrain their enthusiasm. We’ve realized for a long time that enthusiasm and passion are the qualities that define the great performers in show business and athletics. It has been less clear that this also holds true in more traditional organizations.

It also describes those workers who lift a position to a new level. The Gallup organization has published a good deal about the issue of employee engagement. According to its rather extensive research, its best determination is that 29 percent of employees are truly engaged in what they do. They enjoy their work and their colleagues and could be described as generally enthusiastic about their daily occupation.

There is a much larger group, amounting to 55 percent of all workers, who are not “engaged.” They are blasé about what they do. They lack enthusiasm, and it shows up in how they perform their work. These are the garage attendants who only nod or grunt when they see you. They are the retail clerks who only go through the motions, who don’t suggest any “add-on” purchases, and who don’t smile and look you in the eye as you check out and they hand you your receipt.

Finally, Gallup notes that 16 percent of all employees are actively disengaged. These are people who in subtle ways work at cross-purposes to their organization. They engage in internal sabotage that is estimated to cost the U.S. economy $350 billion annually.

Our research reinforces this conclusion. As part of a 360-degree feedback instrument, we ask direct reports of all leaders to indicate their level of employee engagement and commitment.

The analysis of our data from these questions reveals the general level of enthusiasm felt by a leader’s subordinates. In the aggregate, we find that 14 percent of those surveyed have high levels of satisfaction and commitment. We define that as those who respond at the highest level on these questions. Below that, we have 40 percent who express moderate levels of enthusiasm for their organization and their work. That obviously leaves a large group of 46 percent who feel a lower level of enthusiasm for their work and for their organization.

Imagine what an organization would be like if 80 percent of its employees expressed a high level of enthusiasm regarding their work and the organization. We invite you to reflect for a moment on what would be different in your organization if that were true. Be as specific as you can about the impact of that on things that you already worry about—things such as retention, the ability to attract good people, the level of productivity, innovation and creativity, and levels of customer service.

The most promising approach to changing an emotion is to change behavior. When people learn to act in new ways, this clearly alters their inner feelings. People who learn to act with greater enthusiasm become more enthusiastic. Should you have any doubts about that concept, we invite you to try a quick experiment, providing it won’t be too embarrassing. If you’re sitting, slump forward, look at your feet for several seconds, put a gloomy expression on your face, and keep your knees together and your elbows close to your sides. Then try to sense how you “feel” inside. What’s your mood when you do that?

Then, try the reverse. Sit up straight and tall as if you were a Marine sergeant. Smile. Look forward or up. Rehearse an important point that you might be making to some colleagues and gesture boldly. Now see what you identify as your strongest emotion. We predict that it will be moving toward the “enthusiasm” end of the scale rather than the “gloomy” end you were on before.

Leadership characteristics: RESILIENCY

The ability to bounce back from an encounter with a barrier or hurdle is extremely important. This emotional “hardiness” means that barriers are seen as largely external, temporary, and surmountable. It begins with a willingness to accept reality and to work to improvise and adapt to your circumstances in order to achieve a goal.

Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets confirms that people’s reaction to challenging situations stems from a fundamental mindset, or point of view about life, that they have. She labels these mindsets as “proving” or “improving,” and she argues that mindsets can be modified over time. Indeed, authority figures such as teachers and parents have a strong influence on children. It is clear that bosses in the organizations in which adults work take on this same power.

Dweck observes that parents often heap praise on a child, believing that this will enhance the child’s selfesteem and feelings of worth. Messages like, “You’re so smart” and “You are really intelligent” are made with very good intentions. But then the child’s teacher gives her a particularly challenging math problem. She is stumped. Thoughts begin to flash through her mind: “Am I really stupid?” “Did Mom lie to me?” “Did I used to be smart and have I lost it?”

It would have been far better had the parent praised the child’s hard work, tenacity, and ability to overcome obstacles that she encountered. Better that the parent say, “I really admire how persistent you’ve been in working on that report. You’ve put in lots of time and not let anything distract you.” “I was glad to see that you found a way to get that additional information you needed to compete the report. That’s a good example of how being resourceful pays off.” Now when the child encounters an extremely challenging school assignment, she instantly says to herself, “I just need to work harder,” or “I need to find a new approach to this problem.”

The fact of the matter is that we all encounter challenges and difficulties. As the research on “derailed” executives has revealed, those executives whose careers were derailed by some event had about the same number of such events as those executives who were not derailed. The difference was all in how these people responded to difficult events. Those who were derailed brooded about their problems, didn’t talk to others, and made little attempt to rectify the consequences of what had happened. Those who weren’t derailed did precisely the opposite. They flew into action, talked to people who would be affected by their mistake, did their best to rectify the problem, and then proceeded to forget about it and move on.

It is clear that the leaders who had greater resilience also had much greater composure in stressful situations. They did not blame others, snap at subordinates, or berate others for some action. Instead, they were poised and gracefully admitted any mistake that they had made.

The positive emotions that we’ve been discussing have the capacity to essentially erase the consequences of negative events in our lives and create the capacity to be resilient in the face of adversity.

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