This article is included in HBR 10 Must Reads ON LEADERSHIP which is a paperback compiling ten different articles on, well, leadership. Overall, ON LEADERSHIP is a useful read because it seeks to identify the aspects of leadership that are hard to capture via hard science while connecting those qualities to better organizational outcomes, including financial performance. Although this particular article does not spend a lot of time discussing hard numbers, it does speak to what could be described as the character of a leader.
The character of a leader is important for one reason and one reason alone: it lends credibility. Given that the contemporary US employment climate is such that every man or woman clocks in for his or her own objectives rather than a connection to the organization’s overall objective, an organization whose leaders are deemed less than credible will likely enjoy increased turnover, lower profits and a conflicted organization culture.
Not only does character lend credibility, it also inspires people. In short, it helps to encourage people to willingly follow leaders. Who wants to lead and work amid people who are either outwardly unsupportive or passive-aggressive due to distrust? While leaders are going to confront challenges as such is the nature of the beast, there is something to be said when critics have valid concerns. To this end, inspirational leaders do the following:
1) Show weaknesses. They don’t attempt to come across as perfect because they have an appreciation of basic human nature and understand that people who are perfect don’t leave room for others to help or contribute. Leaders are also savvy enough not to expose “fatal weaknesses”. There are some weaknesses that leaders simply need to fix while other weaknesses are perhaps part of that individual’s makeup. To this end, a fatal weakness is something that is central to one’s ability to perform effectively one his or her role. Such flaws shouldn’t be revealed. Rather, they should be addressed and fixed. On the other hand, selectively exposed weaknesses could include acknowledging that you are moody, that you can be slow on paperwork, etc.
2) Hone their sense of intuition. Some people would say that these leaders have “mother wit” and are able to read the tea leaves. In essence, intuitive leaders study people in general as well as the individuals they work alongside as much as they study other aspects of the organization. They have a strong ability to sense unspoken needs and issues. This strength is also important because some people intentionally keep leaders in the dark whether out of fear or for some other reason. Finally intuitive leaders also realize that they have to check their senses against reality and with trusted advisors to be sure they are not projecting their own emotions.
3) Exercise tough empathy. Leaders who exercise tough empathy care about the people and the work that they do. They are able to relate to the people who are doing the work and aim to understand them: “At its best, tough empathy balances respect for the individual and for the task at hand.” Empathy is important because it helps followers to not only see themselves in their leader, but it makes it clear to them that a win-win relative to the goal is the objective.
4) Embrace their unique qualities and capitalize on them. Interestingly, of these four qualities that inspire, embracing uniqueness is said to be the most important one. Uniqueness helps to establish credibility as well. Like showing weaknesses, even intentionally selected weaknesses, it makes leaders seem like real people. On the other hand, their uniqueness helps to establish an important distance. The unique quality is the thing that gets them invited to the party. It helps to make that leader appear more in demand and not easily replaced, i.e., because nobody does it like her, we see her value, even if she isn’t perfect.
With the aforementioned key factors of leadership character outlined, why should anyone follow you? Have you figured out how to be a more strategic and self-aware version of yourself? Finally, no matter what you do, be self-aware and be consistent.