What Makes a Great Leader?

We can look throughout history and into our own experience for examples of influential leaders and come up with a grab bag of attributes. While this “million dollar question” seems to have an ever evolving answer, debated continually by both armchair philosophers and professionals alike.

Sunnie Giles, writing for the Harvard Business Review, sets out to try and answer this question by picking the brains of hundreds of modern, respected leaders world wide. Through his research Giles finds three key leadership themes that his survey participants overwhelmingly agreed upon.

High Standard of Ethics and Providing a Sense of Safety.
Giles writes, “Taken together, these attributes are all about creating a safe and trusting environment. A leader with high ethical standards conveys a commitment to fairness, instilling confidence that both they and their employees will honor the rules of the game.” Giles continues by noting that when leaders communicate their expectations everyone can relax, making it easier to be engaged, creative and productive.

Empower Others to Self-Organize
Gile’s next point is something we can all relate to through personal experience. Whether it’s the boss who won’t delegate or micro managers our every task, it can be difficult to work for someone who doesn’t let those closet to critical situations make the decisions that affect its outcome. Gile’s writes, “many leaders struggle to let people self-organize…They resist because they believe power is a zero-sum game.” These types of leaders, Gile’s relates, are reluctant to let subordinates make mistakes and fear the consequences of their decisions.

Foster a Sense of Connection and Belonging
While it may seem obvious, Giles’ reminds of a simple important fact: we are social creatures. We want to belong. We crave it instinctually as it is a survival tool. Giles points to some interesting research that shows that watching even a superficial unpleasant interaction between two other co-workers become emotionally depleted, that emotions are contagious in the work place.

While the problem might seem daunting, Giles offers some fairly simple practices to alleviate feelings of alienation inside a team:
“There are some simple ways to promote belonging among employees: Smile at people, call them by name, and remember their interests and family members’ names. Pay focused attention when speaking to them, and clearly set the tone of the members of your team having each other’s backs. Using a song, motto, symbol, chant, or ritual that uniquely identifies your team can also strengthen this sense of connection.”