Monday Mornings with Madison

What Leadership Isn’t

Word Count: 1,725
Estimated Read Time: 7 min.

Ask 100 people what constitutes leadership.  You are bound to get 100 different answers.  To prove the point, here are 100 traits that most would agree are fundamental to leadership.

  1. Self-motivated
  2. Higher Standards
  3. Confident
  4. Optimistic
  5. Servant-minded
  6. Accountable
  7. Courageous
  8. Engaged
  9. Unique / Different
  10. Sense of humor
  11. Passionate
  12. Moral / Ethical
  13. Respected
  14. Likable
  15. Loyal
  16. Charismatic
  17. Loves the job
  18. High EQ
  19. Able to weigh risks
  20. Humble
  21. Disciplined
  22. Broad perspective
  23. Spots opportunities
  24. Manages time well
  25. Mature
  26. Leads by example
  27. Relationship builder
  28. Approachable
  29. Excellent speaker
  30. Honest / Transparent
  31. Reasonable
  32. Bold
  33. Good listener
  34. Present / Engaged
  35. Problem solver
  36. Genuine / Authentic
  37. Compassionate
  38. Can handle conflicts
  39. Empowers others
  40. Negotiator
  41. Trustworthy
  42. Motivator
  43. Persuasive
  44. Practical
  45. Fair
  46. Firm
  47. Nimble / Agile
  48. Adaptable
  49. Wise / Prudent
  50. Able to delegate
  51. Clear communicator
  52. Teacher / Trainer
  53. Open-minded
  54. Able to trust others
  55. Inspirational
  56. Recognizes talent
  57. Visionary
  58. Responsible
  59. Generous
  60. Rewards others
  61. Analytical
  62. Decisive
  63. Respect others
  64. Reliable
  65. Cares about others
  66. Coach
  67. Relatable
  68. Sets expectations
  69. Tenacious
  70. Persistent
  71. Focused
  72. Steadfast
  73. Consistent
  74. Risk taker
  75. Educated / well-read
  76. Adventurous
  77. Tough / Strong
  78. Resourceful
  79. Composed
  80. Levelheaded
  81. Shrewd / Artful
  82. Strategist
  83. Proactive
  84. Enthusiastic / Energy
  85. Manage uncertainty
  86. Organized
  87. Creative
  88. Inspirational
  89. Intuitive
  90. Accepts wise counsel
  91. Curious
  92. Competent
  93. Prepared
  94. Seek balance
  95. Change agent
  96. Are grateful
  97. Nurtures potential
  98. Team builder
  99. Loyal
  100. Maverick

However, it is hard to imagine any person possessing all these traits, even the most accomplished of leaders.  So, while it’s clear that leadership means many things to many people, it doesn’t mean a leader is expected to possess every leadership trait in full measure.  Having an exaggerated definition of leadership creates a false narrative of what business owners, executives and managers are expected to do and be.

It is in the face of so much information about what leadership is or should be that it is important to consider what leaders and leadership is not.  Here are a few things leaders aren’t.

1. Leaders do not need to be workaholics.

For decades, being “busy” has been viewed as a badge of honor in business and a sign of a leader’s work ethic and commitment to the organization.   Being “slammed” is shorthand for “I’m important and successful.”  In fact, according to an article published in in the Journal of Management by lead author Melissa Clark at the University of Georgia and her team, being viewed as a workaholic is considered a good thing and calling oneself a workaholic is a humble brag.  Their study looked at the causes and effects of workaholism to determine whether over-dedication was harmful to business.

Their study, however, found that workaholism is not correlated at all with professional performance.  Working long hours does not help performance, but it does cause an unhealthy cycle of compulsion, guilt, letdown, and renewed compulsion found in traditional addictions.  Similar to other types of addictions, workaholics feel a fleeting high or a rush when they’re at work, but quickly become overwhelmed by feelings of guilt or anxiety.  They are compelled to work not because they love it but because they feel internal pressure to work.  And, while workaholism doesn’t help a business be more successful, it does influence other aspects like job stress, greater work-life conflict, decreased physical health, and job burnout.

2. Leaders do not need to be able to do every job in the company.

Many leaders feel compelled to be capable of doing… or actually do… most every job in a company.  It is another humble brag to say “I’m wearing many hats.”  While delegating feels like something they know they should do, many leaders don’t actually delegate tasks, responsibility or power.  It starts at the top.  Top leaders often struggle with knowing what to delegate that would actually be helpful, or how to delegate responsibility rather than tasks, or what responsibilities could serve as a learning and growth opportunity for others below them.   And most have not had role models along the way to show them how to delegate successfully.  Most importantly, there is a perceived reputational risk that delegating will make them look like they don’t know their stuff, or like they’re slacking.

However, in Hidden Value:  How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People, authors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Charles O’Reilly explain that wearing all hats is not good.  In reality, delegating more responsibility for decision-making increases productivity, morale, and commitment, all of which impact company culture.  And a Gallup Poll of 143 CEOs on the Inc. 500 list showed that companies run by executives who effectively delegate authority grow faster, generate more revenue, and create more jobs.  So leaders should wear the leadership hat and empower others to do what they do best.

3. Leaders can have bad days.

Everyone has days where nothing seems to go right; days when the car isn’t running properly, they are still recovering from Covid-19, and are having marital disagreements.  Everyone has bad days.  And the presiding wisdom is that if a leader allows all of that to take him/her off their game, in one day that person could undermine an entire year’s worth of work.  What’s more, it tends to be on bad days – the worst days — when a leader is called upon to make the most difficult and high stakes leadership decisions.

On such bad days, a leader is either prepared to handle it or not.  The best leaders will have proactively practiced how to respond in spite of bad circumstances.  On a bad day, a leader will recognize as quickly as possible that it is a bad day, and remind himself that not every day can be great.  He will know that how he responds to this bad day can either multiply the negative impact of that bad day, or help get through it.  He will think about what he needs to do to feel more relaxed and willing to go with the flow of the day.   A short break?  A walk?  A five minute nap?  Lunch with a trusted colleague?  A hard workout at the gym. Whatever it is, he will do it.  He will also monitor his self-talk to stop any internal negativity. Lastly, he will try to change his emotional state by laughing or doing something fun.  Ultimately, though, a leader is not only entitled to have bad days, but is guaranteed to have them.  Everyone does and a leader is not defined by his worst moments.

4. Leaders can and should ask for help.

There is one trait that sets the best leaders apart from others, no matter how smart, driven and visionary they may be, and it’s that they recognize when they need help and aren’t afraid to ask for it.  Whether the person climbed to the top of the executive ladder or built the business from the ground up, it doesn’t happen without help.  And by asking staff to help, it shows they are trusted.  It also frees up time, which can be used to strengthen the company, both financially and internally.  Asking for help is a sign of strength, not of weakness. Good leaders live by this.

5. Leaders do not have to be the smartest people in the room.

Leadership and expertise are not the same things.  If the leader is the smartest person in the room, it’s time for him/her to find a different room.  At a certain point, leadership is no longer about being the smartest subject-matter expert in the room.  It is about developing people through their careers and helping them be effective.  An effective leader helps to develop a team and identify / craft creative solutions to tough problems.  The leader’s job isn’t to be the subject-matter expert, but rather to network, communicate, and lead people toward an outcome they can’t see.  In fact, according to Jack Welch, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

6. Leaders can prioritize family as well as work.

The days of people working long hours while they neglect family is on the decline thanks to younger generations.  White-collar millennial males aren’t subscribing to the iron-man ethos of previous generations. Many are avoiding the rat race and seeking more work-life flexibility. And if their companies don’t give them what they want, they leave.  Family is as much a priority as work.

Given the trend toward remote work, prioritizing family as well as work is sure to continue to increase.  And smart companies that require employees to work in the office are encouraging their leadership to make family a priority by leaving work at a reasonable time and working less than 50 hours a week.  It is this work-life balance that helps stave off leadership turnover, burnout and other causes of dissatisfaction.

7. Leaders can take time off.

What separates exceptional leaders from good leaders is that exceptional leaders know the value and the importance of taking time off… time that doesn’t involve work.  Great leaders take time off to recharge their batteries.  They disconnect their phone in order to be freed from the daily stresses of working life.  This improves health and reduces burnout.  Even top leaders take four to six weeks of vacation per year.  By taking time to relax or play, leaders are more likely to have new insights into old problems and other flashes of inspiration.  Leaders often do their best thinking and come up with their most brilliant ideas and solutions when hiking some mountain or sailing a boat or fishing off a pier.  Disconnecting from work provides a different perspective on things.

From entry level managers of small companies to C-Suite execs and company founders, the bar is set high for what traits and qualities constitute leadership.  But the truth is that as much can be learned about how to be a great leader by learning what leadership isn’t as what it is.

Quote of the Week

“The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on leadership development. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organization that recruits good people, raises them up as leaders and continually develops them.” John C. Maxwell


© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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