I’ve had the good fortune to work with insurance brokerages for almost two decades. During that time, I’ve seen all kinds of leaders. Some young, some old. Some that started the business, some that were professional operators. Men and women. I’ve seen leaders in action at small brokerages with just a handful of staff and those of major, multi-office chains with over 1,000 employees. I’ve also seen leaders of groups within an organization. Some of the leaders were owners, some weren’t. In our efforts working with brokerages we are afforded a unique vantage point of their operations. Leaders of those that run thriving business with strong financial performance and engaged employees seem to share, consciously or not, a handful of characteristics. The leaders we’ve enjoyed watching share clarity, commitment, and care as their core leadership characteristics. Through these traits they build a culture of contagion where others are drawn to them and their organizations like moths to a flame. Others eagerly opt to follow and enroll in the journey not because they are obliged but because these leader’s clarity, commitment, and care are compelling.
The number one trait of strong leaders is that they know where they want to go. Clear vision follows deep knowledge in who they are. Before leaders can lead others they have worked on developing their personal character. Silicon Valley leadership legend, Bill George, noted in an interview, “Most leaders who fail really suffer from a lack of a strong identity, belief in themselves and, to be frank, respect for themselves.” Conviction follows a clear and strong character. The best leaders know who they are and what they stand for. They have vision and principles. They have personal pride which fuels a quiet confidence. Their calm reassurance reinforces the direction offered.
From self-knowledge, leaders form a picture in their mind of the promised land and their efforts are designed to align the efforts of their team in the same direction. John Strelecky in The Big Five for Life offers, “The first step is for the leader to clearly articulate to their people what needs to be accomplished and why.” Leadership is about painting a picture about our shared direction. It’s about giving people direction and purpose. The current CEO of General Electric, Jeff Immelt, notes “Every leader needs to clearly explain the top three things the company is working on. If you can’t, you’re not leading well.” Everything flows from knowing where the organization is trying to go. Leaders have the answer to several questions posed by Elton and Gostick in their book All In, “What do you do, and why do you do it? What is your mission? Whom do you do it for? Who are your customers? How will you get where you want to go? What are your values and goals?” It is this clarity that helps others see and get onside with the desired direction. The opposite of clarity sucks the will out of the workforce as the authors of The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner, point out “There’s nothing more demoralizing than a leader who can’t clearly articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Like Moses, leaders are showing others the path to the promised land. Visions that move do so by drawing others to a desirable destination where they see a brighter future for themselves. Leaders are able to connect others to the cause by painting a picture of what the outcome looks like to them individually and personally. As the sixth President of the United States, John Quincy Adams observed, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Leaders recognize they are the beacon in the lighthouse shining the way forward for the organization. It is their core responsibility to lead the collective attention of the company. In Focus, Daniel Goleman notes, “Leading attention requires these elements: first, focusing your own attention, then attracting and directing attention from others, and getting and keeping the attention of employees and peers, of customers or clients.” Leaders have done the work to know themselves, their organization, and the external environment in which they operate. They set direction based on deep understanding on how their strengths can serve. They seek to consciously connect their efforts and those of the organization in the desired direction. Embedded in the leadership trait of clarity is communication.
The best leaders trend to transparency. They err on the side of commission and not omission. Their position is known. Information is shared. Leaders communicate. All day, every day. They reinforce the vision while offering accurate information as to where the organization is presently. They then set out what the key action steps are to focus on in the short term in order to move closer to the desired target from where the organization presently sits. Strong leaders celebrate openly progress as it is achieved no matter how small it may seem. Business author, Phil Jones notes that a principal problem with execution of initiatives in organizations relates to communication gaps. Jones writes, “Typically only about eight percent of an organization understands the strategy.” Former Ford CEO, Alan Mulally emphasizes Jones perspective when he observed in a conversation with business writers Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton that in most companies few people know what the strategic direction and plan are because leaders are reluctant to share openly. They treat most things on a “need to know” basis. Mulally points out what seems to be obvious noting, “You can’t manage a secret.” If staff are to be part of executing something, they need to know what the plan is. Moreover, they need to know how they’re doing so that comparisons to where the business is and where it is trying to go can be made in order to monitor progress and course correct along the way. Patty McCord former Netflix executive spells out the goal of a leader’s communication writing in Powerful, “How do you know when people are well enough informed? Here’s my measure. If you stop any employee, at any level of the company, in the break room or the elevator and ask what are the five most important things the company is working on for the next six months, that person should be able to tell you, rapid fire, one, two, three, four, five, ideally using the same words you’ve used in your communications to the staff and, if they’re really good, in the same order. If not, the heartbeat isn’t strong enough yet.” That’s a pretty high bar.
Strong leaders don’t see their function as just a job. Neither is it a career. It’s a commitment. They are all-in and dedicated to their duties. They are invested in the enterprise. This investment may be financially as a shareholder, but it is as much an investment of personal capital. Commitment is contagious for better and for worse. Strong leaders lead by example and are able to infuse their enthusiasm into others. They serve as a wind to their staff’s sail and propel them forward. Other less inspiring leaders act more like an anchor weighing down the business and staff in place. It’s a deep seeded hunger that compels them to give their best all day every day. Committed leaders are fueled by a passion which propels patient perseverance. They are not consumed by short term performance. They are in it for the long haul. They are often first in and last out kind of people. Their contributions to their work are one of if not the highest priority in their lives.
Their commitment is about seeking to improve things. They are on a quest to make their people, customers, communities, and businesses better. The folk at Admired Leadership consider leadership as a verb not a noun. It’s less title and more action. It presents itself as an expression and isn’t a possession. Through commitment leaders express their drive and direction which draws others to them. At the heart of commitment is the difference between being a leader and doing leader-like stuff. It reflects the two paths we’ve discussed in the past. Those that are committed are doing. A piece of the commitment extends to those with whom they work. They recognize that their efforts can only go so far. Others are needed to contribute to the cause. Leaders care about bringing others with them on their journey.
No matter how good they are personally, they can’t do it alone. A leader doesn’t exist without others to lead. Therefore, developing others and helping them achieve their goals concurrent with those of the organization are key motivators for strong leaders. Strong leaders don’t see others as a means to their ends. They see developing others as one of their highest roles. Strong leaders believe we’re better together. They see themselves as servant leaders working to ensure resources and training are on hand to allow staff to perform well. Outside of setting and communicating a vision, the next largest responsibility of leadership is coaching team members. Are Weinzweig an entrepreneur featured in Bo Burlingham’s book Small Giants considers a core part of his job to “give great service to staff.” This sentiment is shared similarly by Les Wexner the founder and CEO of fashion brand the Limited. Wexner in a Bloomberg Business week article offered, “I got as excited about developing people (as I had been about identifying fashion trends).”
They are proactively looking for ways to help others do their jobs. In It’s Your Ship, Michael Abrashoff notes, “The most important skill a skipper can have is the ability to see through the eyes of the crew.” Leaders love the idea of clearing the path for those on their team. They exemplify the posture of an Anteambulo. They strive to serve. Sound leadership reflects Bob Dylan’s quote that “You’ll find out when you reach the top, you’re on the bottom.” The higher they rise in an organization, the more responsibility they have to help others. The best leaders aren’t seen. They aren’t presenting themselves as the face of the organization. They are assisting others to do their best possible work. In the words of an Admired Leadership note, “Leaders don’t get paid in cash. Instead, leaders get paid in respect, trust, admiration, loyalty, and results. True leaders lead because they want to make people and situations better.” They are trading credit for contribution. Gandhi is credited with the quote, “There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” Deep down leaders internalize their role as guides on the side and not sages on the stage.
In a separate note from Admired Leadership a single trait was offered for identifying who a leader is. It wasn’t title or appearance. It was who cares more. They write, “Just listen and watch for a short time, and you will find the leader always cares more. Leaders care deeply about people, about team outcomes, and about the health of the organization. All of these sustain results. This caring is always evident if you look past cosmetic features. Leaders are more involved, more engaged, more intense, more focused, and more curious. You can see this caring in just about everything they do.” Gostick and Elton heard from Alan Mulally that leadership “is about people. You either understand that on a really fundamental level, or you don’t. And if you do, then you love them up. You tell them everything that’s going on; that’s all-time respect that you create an environment where people know what the plan is, what the status is, and areas that need special attention. Then it’s all about appreciating them, respecting them, and thanking them at every step of the way.” This is wisdom that doesn’t come from any business textbook and captures the clarity, communication, and care pieces of great leadership.
The San Antonio Spurs have become quite a team in the past handful of years in the NBA. Their less than spectacular past has quickly shifted to putting them near the top of the league consistently. Much of the credit for their performance has been laid at the feet of head coach Greg Popovich. Popovich is credited with building a great culture where players are committed to the organization. Author Daniel Coyle writes about Popovich’s approach in his book The Culture Code. An experience at a practice post a disheartening loss afforded Coyle clear insight into the strength of Popovich’s leadership. The players were feeling the sting of the prior night’s loss. They were tense and unhappy. Popovich moved casually around visiting all players. He found a way to connect with each player personally. Some he talked to, some he just touched, some he looked at a certain way. With some he spent more time, others less. He was there for each player building both a personal connection and a belief that the player and team was on the right track. Coyle wrote, “There’s two words that come up again and again when you read about Popovich and the Spurs: care and connection. … We (the Spurs) are really intentional about making that connection happen.”
Have you enjoyed the good fortune of working for any leader that demonstrated each of these qualities? How did this type of leader influence your work experience? Did you enjoy working with them? Does your leader today exemplify these characteristics? Are they clear on their direction? Do they communicate this regularly? How do they show their commitment? What does their role mean to them? How do they demonstrate that they care for their people? Do they show an interest in the personal lives of their team? Are they looking to help those around them get better? Do they know what motivates their individual team members? Do they know where their staff want to be five years from now? Are they working on a plan together to help their staff achieve their personal goals? Does your leader offer a good example? Do they have a regular presence in the office? Can they and will they step in and help out in operational aspects of the business when needed? Do they live the values of the organization? Do they make these values known to others? Do they celebrate others when they witness them living these values? Clarity, communication, and care combine to create the charisma of strong leaders. This charisma acts like a magnet attracting people to them. It’s not a snake oil salesman slippery kind of charm. It is authentic and appreciated. People become devoted to them and their business. People bring their best. Turnover is low and engagement is high.