The 5 traits of effective leaders
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
In 2019 Forbes listed the four 4 traits common to all successful leaders:
Unafraid to Ask
All of the above certainly make a lot of sense, and would be echoed in the majority of writing on this subject – including my own books. To take each in turn:
Awareness: Leaders must be aware of not just what is happening in their organization as a whole, but in their community and in their field – as well as the wider social zeitgeist. Having your finger on the pulse enables you to plan ahead or at least anticipate potential changes and directions so that you remain at the tip of the curve (if not ahead) and are more often being proactive rather than simply responding or playing “catch up”.
For example, as a psychologist, while I favour the area of wellbeing as it pertains to personal and professional success, I have a broad knowledge of not only psychology, but what is going on at large. Not only does learning in one area inform my thinking in another (eg. In my psychometric work on inclusion in team relationships, and knowledge of different areas of psychology in this case defence mechanisms” - discussing the effect of “Love Island” and “Normal People” – both shows I do not watch by choice – was a joy as I was able to talk about the effect of projection, community and even a bit of evolutionary psychology) but it enables me to connect with a broader range of people on a wider topic of discussion – that is immeasurably good for my own self development.
Simply, the greater your awareness, the more effective you will be in a wide range of situations, and the less likely you will get into a fix for careless “oversimplifying” of complexity eg. You’ll less likely be caught out being righteous about something in one area only to make the same mistake in another.
Take Action: As I’ve said in many previous articles, even the most enlightened thinking and planning is no substitute for effective action. As a coach and trainer I notice that first many struggle with self-reflection, then they recognize its power, then the struggle to take action because they begin over-thinking. Over-thinking is seductive rather than problematic – it keeps you safe in your comfort zone.
However, taking action is a must – even when you cannot predict the outcome…in fact in decision making*, you can plan the best you can but you cannot predict the outcome, but resilient leader generally knows they will be ok.
*note that most people will often paralyse themselves when they aren’t even having to make a decision – they have not moved forward enough from the problem solving stage. How often have you considered whether you should take a job you haven’t even applied for? I appreciate that often what you are actually deciding is whether it is worth putting in the effort to apply, but if you are considering something, then I would tend to veer on the side of do it – because saying “no” is still better than not having the chance to say anything at all.
Accountability: Good leaders take responsibility for their actions – because they realise how powerful responsibility is. To rephrase Spiderman, “With great responsibility comes great power” – and that is something to be embraced. When you have responsibility, no matter how small, you have an area you can do something about. Of course life brings with it luck, opportunity and surprise, but for greatest personal and professional effectiveness, see having responsibility as an opportunity rather than a burden. Leaders know that deflection of blame often takes more energy than righting what went wrong – and learning how to avoid the same situation in future.
Being unafraid to Ask: Just because someone hasn’t told you something, doesn’t mean they are deliberately hiding it. Often people overlook to tell you what they are most familiar with, or presume because they know, everyone knows – ASK, don’t assume an answer…and certainly don’t then further assume that someone was “hiding something” when you didn’t even ask yourself!!
Further, leaders are unafraid to reach out. So often people are consumed with competition and fear that they want to keep everything to themselves. You can achieve far more if you enlist the skills of others – not least because you can never be as accomplished in specific areas as a person who has trained in it. Where your discernment and wise decision making needs to come in is not over the act of collaboration but in choosing with whom to collaborate. Working with someone because “they are family” or because “you feel sorry for them”, or sometimes even because “they helped you in the past” (if they are not right for the role), is not a professional approach. You can form friendships with colleagues, but that is a connection of a different nature. When you vouch for someone, your reputation is in their hands too; and similarly theirs is in return if you are recommended. Do well to live up to the trust of others. If a collaboration does not turn out the way you hoped, then learn from it and move on – try not to carry resentment with you as again it’s a waste of energy and focus instead on what drew you to suggesting that person because often it reveals something we may be lacking in ourselves – a wish to “help strays” tends to come from a feeling of being lost yourself.
And good Leaders also ask for help when they need it. It is my privilege to support many. I see my role like “Tinkerbell” – my skills are in helping you to fly in order that you can better serve your clients and your teams, and sometimes that outside light can come in very useful t an inside situation.
However, there is one area that I believe is missing from the Forbes list, and it is another “A” – leaders APPLY all those skills outwards. They are aware of growing the company which benefits their staff, their clients and their community; they take action in order to best support and help others; they are accountable because they know they are responsible for many people’s livelihoods and are also a role model for their business; and they are unafraid to ask because it helps them serve you better.
You may be very aware – but if you only focus on how something affects you then your actions will be stunted. You may take action, again for yourself – and if independence is your preference, you can be very successful that way, but a team will often take you further. You can be accountable for yourself, and others will learn not to rely on you; and of course you can Ask, but again if this is simply for your own benefit, then you might find only a limited number of people wanting to respond.
I used to think that I learned authority through teaching - when you're stood in front of a class being expected to do something; actually, I learned the applied nature of leading - it's not always about about the title, but about the time and effort to be aware of when something is amiss in someone and nurture it - discreetly; the actions you take to not only teach your subject (or as a leader, your business), but the life lessons that go into doing your job well; the importance of accountability because if someone trusts you, that is one of the most valuable gifts of all; and the asking - demanding, sometimes fighting for the causes you believe in despite the outside pressures of cuts, targets, and other demands.
As a leader your decisions and your actions must also be mindful of those who follow you. It is why so many may want to lead, they may even hold the title and the paycheck, but spend an hour in the organisation and you’ll see who really influences the team.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt