The Top 5 Characteristics of an Effective Leader

At the height of the hyper-growth dot-com era in the early 2000s, I was working for one of the largest IT consulting companies in the Twin Cities—Analysts International Corporation (AIC). Susan Furlow and Bill Paxton (branch manager and assistant branch manager) were leading an office of more than 500 technology consultants who were on assignment with the area’s largest companies (3M, Cargill, Medtronic, General Mills and others). Remember Y2K? These companies were spending millions to rewrite the code of mainframe computers that could potentially "meltdown" when the calendar flipped to the year 2000.

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For IT consulting companies like AIC, the leadership challenges during this period were unprecedented. Consultants could name their price—and often did—leapfrogging from one company to the next for 15–30 percent pay increases along the way. It was the Wild West.

Finding, attracting, and keeping technology talent to meet client demand was a top priority for AIC’s branch leadership. To overcome this challenge, Susan and Bill found themselves asking the question of executives everywhere: How can I become the leader my company needs to move forward?

Ask any CEO what the top traits of an effective or great leader are, and you’ll hear a broad range of responses. But the more people you ask, and the more articles and books you read on the topic the more common threads you’ll find. We’ve narrowed our list down to five items.

5 characteristics of an effective leader: 

  1. Empathy
  2. Humility
  3. Courage
  4. Integrity
  5. Vision

1. Empathy

For Susan and Bill at AIC, success depended on a deep bench of happy and motivated consultants. Through empathy, both leaders looked past their own needs to focus on others. They empathized with the needs of AIC’s consultants and created a culture that saw employee engagement, and revenue, skyrocket. In the process, they became early adopters of a principle that places a company’s employees ahead of customers.

Former HCL Technologies CEO Vineet Nayar popularized this employee-first approach with his best-seller "Employees First, Customers Second." “Did you notice that look of anxiety as your teammate walked into the office this morning? Or did you miss it because you were busy fretting about deadlines? Do you treat your team members as human beings, and not just as workers?”, Nayar asks in the Harvard Business Journal.

In his new book "Hit Refresh," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella explains the importance of empathy. “At the core, "Hit Refresh" is about us humans and the unique quality we call empathy, which will become ever more valuable in a world where the torrent of technology will disrupt the status quo like never before.”

2. Humility

Closely related to the leadership trait of empathy is humility. Author and speaker Brian Tracy says that “Humility is having the self-confidence and self-awareness to recognize the value of others without feeling threatened.”

“Humility gets results,” says Larry Bossidy, the former CEO of Honeywell, in his book "Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done." “The more you can contain your ego, the more realistic you are about your problems. You learn how to listen, and admit that you don’t know all the answers. You exhibit the attitude that you can learn from anyone at any time. Your pride doesn’t get in the way of gathering the information you need to achieve the best results.”

3. Courage

Winston Churchill said, “Courage is rightly considered the foremost of the virtues, for upon it, all others depend.” Brian Tracy says that “Having the quality of courage means that you are willing to take risks in the achievement of your goals with no assurance of success. Because there is no certainty in life or business, every commitment you make and every action you take entails a risk of some kind.”

Courage, indeed, shows up on most lists of classic leadership traits. “Inc.” lists it in “The 5 Essential Qualities of a Great Leader.” If you feel you don’t have the courage you can learn it says the article’s author Peter Economy. Too bad the beloved Lion from "The Wizard of Oz" didn’t know that. He could have avoided a long trip and a gang of flying monkeys.

“Boldness is both something you can develop and something that is blessed as a virtue. Although some people are naturally more fearless than others, practicing how to be fearless—or at least project fearlessness—is a completely doable task, one many have achieved to fulfill their role as an amazing leader,” says Mr. Economy.

4. Integrity

If there were three immutable leadership characteristics, integrity would be one of them. Nearly every executive can agree on the value of integrity. “With integrity, you have nothing to hide. With integrity, you will do the right thing so that you will have no guilt,” says Zig Ziglar. Brian Tracy puts it this way: “Integrity requires that you always tell the truth, to all people, in every situation.”

5. Vision

Former GE CEO Jack Welch sums up why effective leaders must have the ability to create and communicate a company vision: “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive to its completion.”

Laser-focused vision also takes extreme discipline, in addition to “crystal clear priorities,” says Alison Eyring, founder, and CEO of Organization Solutions. To stay on course, you have to learn to say “no,” carefully craft your own “stop-doing list” and master your time.

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About the author

Gary Teagarden
Vistage Minnesota

Gary is an accomplished copywriter and B2B content marketing strategist. He’s written numerous articles and member stories for Vistage Minnesota since 2012.

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