The whiteboard in my office is covered in all sorts of business concepts, structures, philosophies, and operational thoughts. One of these is a list of what I consider fundamental leadership traits. You can read a library full of books on “good” and “bad” leadership, but in my opinion, these four qualities are needed to judge whether someone can be a leader of any kind:
- Having Vision
- Having Passion
- Ability to do an Ask
- Ability to Execute
First, let's think about these traits in a negative sense:
- If you don’t have a vision, aren't you more of a manager than a leader? Vision is key to developing a following, and without it, you can’t expect others to advocate for your ideas. Instead, they’ll follow you out of professional or personal convenience. For my part, I always seek out mentors—whether in person or in the media—with a vision. And when I’m leading others, I make sure that I share my vision with them, giving them something to strive toward, and giving that vision a fighting chance to work.
- If you don't have passion, will anyone buy into your vision? Sure, you can convince some people with facts, but facts alone won’t motivate everybody. It takes passion plus facts to bring everyone onboard. Passion is what inspires people and persuades them that not only is your vision a good place to go, but that you might be the right person to lead them there.
- If you can't ask people to do things, your vision and passion are purely inspirational. Sure, you may have followers, but are you really a leader? If you don’t ask things of your colleagues, your vision and passion will remain vague ideas that flash out into nothingness. In business, the most basic asks we must make are for money (from clients) and effort (from colleagues). Many people have a hard time with this. But you’ve got get over it if you want to be a leader. It’s important to recognize the value of your vision and passion, and to make sure that your asks reflect that value.
- Last, if you can’t execute, you won’t be able to prove anything. This is one of the places where fake leaders get smoked out. Demonstrative leadership, i.e., leading (and even failing) with your face first, is critical to getting others to move things forward. Leaders must be willing to do the task themselves to understand how to help others accomplish it. Otherwise, you run the risk of being viewed as “all talk and no action” by your colleagues.
Once you’ve shown yourself qualified to lead by possessing these four traits, your style, intent, and other qualities define what kind of leader you are (empathetic, hard-ass, evil, etc). There are other attributes leaders should consider cultivating depending on the kind of organizational cultures they hope to build. These may include empathy, vigilance, and social and emotional intelligence. The kind of leader you are creates your organization’s leadership culture, and your effectiveness depends on how well that culture aligns with the work environment you are in, and the tasks at hand. In my opinion—and contrary to most articles on the subject—effective leadership doesn’t depend on having “good” qualities (empathy, for example), unless the environment requires it.
In fact, some of those good qualities might be more appropriately left to managers, i.e., they’re not fundamental to leadership. For example, a military leader might have vision and passion, do the ask for their vision with fighter planes, and then execute the mission from experience. They might do so without empathy and still succeed. Thus, other qualities might be important to being what some might want to call a “good” leader, but for me, they’re not qualifications for leadership in general.
At Trellist, we’re always pushing to make sure that those in leadership roles are qualified with the four traits first. I like to remind our employees to think about the ways they exhibit these traits in their daily work, and to notice how the people they regard as leaders exhibit them. Being a leader means giving others a place to go (vision), the energy and direction to get there (passion), a way to harness that energy (the ask), and a willingness to get the job done (execution). Without these four fundamental traits, you’re simply not qualified to lead.
In future posts, we’ll take a closer look at each of these four traits.