Leadership literature has increased in recent years, with countless titles touting the secrets to becoming a more effective leader. From serving your team to demonstrating emotional intelligence or even navigating the new terrain of remote work, the options for aspiring leaders seem endless.
But despite the multitude of career advice, most of it has little to do with developing leadership skills that are effective in the real world. In a world where you lead teams in the trenches and don’t get to invent the next iPhone every day. As someone who has managed teams in some of the world’s most esteemed workplaces, including Amazon, I can attest that traditional leadership literature often overlooks critical competencies necessary for success in the leadership challenge of everyday work.
This piece will challenge the conventional corporate narrative surrounding essential key leadership qualities and offer a new perspective on The 13 Unconventional Competencies of A Great Leader. These competencies, which teams on the ground would agree are essential for effective leadership, offer a fresh approach to becoming an influential leader.
How can you tell a great leader?
As we prepare to reveal The 13 Unconventional Competencies of Exceptional Leadership, we must first come to a consensus on how we quantify great leadership qualities. Is a leader deemed successful solely based on their team’s ability to exceed sales targets? Or is it their team’s low turnover rate that indicates true leadership prowess? Perhaps it’s recognition in a quarterly investor relations report or being lauded in prestigious lists like “30/40/50 under 30/40/50.”
I believe that the best corporate leaders would have been elected to their positions by their teams in an open vote. These effective leaders don’t rely on power or vested authority to get their employees or teams to behave in a certain way. Instead, they attract others to follow.
Of course, this isn’t to say that great leaders always agree with everything their team proposes or tolerate subpar performance. On the contrary, many of the best leaders set incredibly high standards for those who work with or for them. Equally, great leaders don’t always give motivational speeches and dish out endless pep talks. And yet, their teams still follow voluntarily.
So, with this in mind, let’s dive into The 13 Unconventional Competencies of a Great Leader.
Commitment to making the world a better place
Good leaders are not in it for their glory but for the greater good. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. A good leader is selfless and not driven by personal gain but by their desire to make a lasting impact on the world around them.
Great leaders are not focused on short-term gains but rather on leaving a long-term positive mark on the world. They are not in it for status, power, or authority. They are in it to make the world a better place, not to make their place in the world better. Great leaders find themselves in a unique position where the world they can influence is the corporation or organization they work for.
This commitment to improving the world is not limited to the workplace. It’s a quality visible in these leaders outside of work as well. They often get involved in leading charitable organizations, parenting, or other activities where the investment in a positive future outcome is significant, and the rewards are not immediate.
To them, leadership is not about having a seat at the table with the powerful or receiving accolades in magazines or internal newsletters. It’s about making a lasting impact on the world around them. The traits of a great leader – commitment, selflessness, and a long-term perspective – radiate from them and positive attitude is contagious.
Willingness to be convinced
In corporate environments, one of the challenges of leadership is managing the flow of ideas and making bets on which ideas will make it to execution and which ones will not. This becomes part of the job for anyone in a leadership position, as they must make judgment calls on which ideas to back.
While leaders are expected to exercise their judgment and back only the most promising ideas, it is equally essential for leaders to be open to changing their minds. A leader who becomes too set in their ways and refuses to consider new information or ideas can quickly become a cast-iron bottleneck for their team.
Gambling on new ideas can be uncomfortable and risky, but it is also essential for encouraging the flow of ideas and enabling team members to self-actualize. Leaders willing to experiment and take risks encourage their teams to develop even more ideas and empower them to try new things.
Of course, not every idea will be a success. But a leader who is open to changing their mind and willing to take gambles will earn respect and trust of their team. This, in turn, fosters a culture of creativity and innovation, where team members feel inspired to generate and share more ideas, even if, like in some companies, it will take a thousand “no”s to get one “yes.”
Acting with genuine humility
Humility is often misunderstood in corporate leadership. Many believe humility equates to being meek, agreeable, and not assertive. But this could not be further from the truth.
Jeff Wilke, a former Senior Vice President at Amazon, best describes humility in corporate leadership as the realization that your body odor does not smell of roses. It is the understanding that, as a human being, you are as fallible and irrational as everyone else. Being in a leadership position does not mean that you are perfect or not immune to making mistakes.
However, acting humbly is not just about acknowledging that you are not infallible. It is also about demonstrating this quality visibly to your team and anyone else who works with you. You should not be afraid to admit your mistakes publicly; it should not be a question of ego or status.
The problem with leaders who are not humble is that they often prioritize their status and recognition above all else. This attitude can create a toxic work environment that repels great talent and generates terrible ideas. Nobody wants to work with someone who is only there for the glory and thinks they are perfect at everything.
On the other hand, acting with genuine humility attracts excellent talent and generates outstanding ideas. It creates an environment where people feel safe to make mistakes and learn from them. As a leader, your primary goal is to make the world a better place, not to make your place in the world better. And that is only possible if you act with humility.
Being a positive force in your team’s lives
At its core, leadership is about making the world a better place. This includes the organization you work in and the people within it.
When you take your mission seriously, it becomes clear that you cannot complete it without taking a genuine interest in the human beings around you. This means building relationships, getting to know people personally, and becoming a positive and optimistic part of their lives.
Of course, this does not mean that everyone on your team needs to be your friend. It also does not mean that you should allow personal biases to affect performance-related decisions. However, it does mean that you must see your team as more than just resources that can do something for you.
If you treat your team members as transactional resources, you may get the results you want in the short term. However, you will also create a toxic environment that few people want to be a part of. In contrast, if you take a genuine interest in your team members as people, you will create a positive and optimistic environment that inspires people to do their best work consistently and voluntarily.
Focus on collaboration, not competition
In the corporate world, competition is often viewed as a necessary aspect of success. In reality, fostering a collaborative environment will generate superior outcomes. The ability to create such an environment where teamwork and idea-sharing are valued above all else is a competency of a great leader.
While some argue that healthy competition can lead to the best ideas rising to the top, in reality, it is often the quality of ideas that come from a team that builds on each other’s ideas rather than trying to one-up each other. Teams that focus on harnessing the power of collective talent and are open to ideas, regardless of who owns them, will ultimately end up with much better ideas than those that view themselves as a collection of individuals in a zero-sum game.
But how do you foster a genuinely collaborative environment? By acting without a vested ego. Great leaders role-model the conviction that great ideas come by harnessing the team’s collective mind by encouraging team members to build on each other’s ideas. They create an atmosphere of trust where everyone feels valued and heard.
From a purely transactional standpoint, fostering a collaborative environment benefits businesses directly. Better ideas mean more customers and more sales. Great leaders understand this and know that creating a collaborative environment is not just a nice to have but a necessity for long-term success.
Decisiveness is the ability to make difficult decisions in uncertainty and risk. Leaders must be able to allocate resources, back specific ideas, and turn those ideas into tangible products, services, and solutions. This process inevitably involves risk, and it is up to the leader to navigate those risks in a way that enables progress.
Indecisiveness is the enemy of progress. Leaders who cannot make decisions or require excessive amounts of data from their team before making a call ultimately hinder progress and frustrate motivated teams.
A great leader, on the other hand, is someone who makes decisions while keeping the team’s progress at the forefront. They are facilitators of progress rather than bottlenecks or obstacles. They understand that progress sometimes requires rejecting ideas and asking their team to go back to the drawing board, and they do so fairly and respectfully.
Transparency and candor
Transparency and candor are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings and implications for leaders. Transparency is the quality of being open and honest in sharing information, intentions, and actions. On the other hand, Candor is the quality of being frank, direct, and truthful in communication, especially when it comes to feedback, criticism, and difficult conversations. Transparency and candor form the foundation of trust, respect, and accountability in leadership.
To be a great leader, one must embrace the responsibility of being candid and transparent. This task is not easy, requiring maturity, skill, and self-awareness. It is easy to fall into the trap of being either too direct or vague, rude or manipulative, conflict-averse or aggressive. Yet, great leaders must find this balance or otherwise risk being ineffective and damaging to their teams and organizations.
Being candid and transparent requires leaders to be clear about their values, goals, and expectations, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of their team members. They must be able to give constructive feedback that is specific, timely, and actionable without being hurtful or dismissive.
Ultimately, being authentic and consistent is the key to being candid and transparent. Leaders must not hide behind a façade or pretend to be someone they are not. They must be true to themselves, their values, and their purpose and communicate this clearly and openly to their team members. They must build a culture of trust and transparency, where everyone feels safe to speak up, challenge, and learn from each other.
Gift the best work
Good leaders know how to delegate effectively. However, for great leaders, delegation goes beyond mere assignment of tasks; for better leaders, it’s about dispatching projects and giving away work they would rather do themselves.
This approach to delegation stems from the understanding that a leader’s job is not to make their place in the world better but to make the world a better place. Therefore, when true leaders are faced with the dilemma of which projects to delegate and which to keep for themselves, great leaders delegate the ones they would much rather work on themselves.
In doing so, they offer opportunities to their team to work on engaging, impactful, and visible projects, allowing them to self-actualize and use their creative and analytical skills to their fullest potential. This benefits not only the each team member but also the organization as a whole.
This approach to delegation is not just a pipe dream but a reality in the contemporary corporate world. It separates good leaders from great leaders and sets the stage for success for the leader and the entire organization.
The force for calm
In today’s chaotic world of work, where conflicting priorities, crises, and demanding situations are inevitable, the job of a great leader is to take in the chaos of work and distill it into order.
Great leaders see themselves as a mechanism that converts confusion into clarity, complexity into simplicity, and heated emotions into an atmosphere of calmness. They aim to increase the coefficient, that efficiency percentage, of their inputs to outputs as high as possible.
Being an authentic leader means being yourself and not trying to put on a mask of a persona that you believe will be more palatable to your organization. If you feel like you have to put on a persona to be accepted as a leader, you may have chosen the wrong organization to lead in.
The importance of authenticity goes beyond personal performance. If you’re not authentic, it’s difficult for others to trust you. As a leader, you will find that a lack of trust can be devastating. It’s hard to motivate people who don’t trust you, and when people aren’t motivated, their performance suffers, and the quality of their ideas degrades. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that can be tough to break.
One of the most significant challenges of authenticity is that it’s impossible to measure. You know it when you see it, but it’s difficult to quantify or define. However, even if it’s difficult to measure, it’s easy to feel when someone is fake. We’re attuned to it and can tell when someone isn’t themselves.
As a leader, you need to be easily describable as a character. Someone who works with you should always be able to describe you easily. If they can’t, it’s a red flag that you may not be authentic enough. Great leadership requires authenticity because it breeds trust. And trust is essential to building a strong team.
Great leaders embrace the idea that good things take time. They understand that progress can be slow and are patient with their people, recognizing that everyone progresses at different rates. They also know that the path to greatness is rarely a straight line and that setbacks and failures are part of the journey.
Being patient with people doesn’t mean being slow or indecisive. Instead, it is about recognizing that almost all greatness takes time and that other human beings progress at different rates. It means allowing people to do their best and providing the necessary space and time to improve.
Of course, there comes the point when patience must give way to action. A great leader knows when to call it a day with an idea or sub-par performance. But that decision must be based on judgment and intuition, not impatience.
At its core, patience is about understanding that things take time for oneself and others. It is about not expecting greatness immediately and recognizing that progress can be slow but is always possible. For a great leader, patience is a competency that can make all the difference.
The mark of a truly great leader is their ability to foster a genuinely inclusive environment. In a world where diversity and inclusion are hotly debated topics, it’s easy to get caught up in formal initiatives and metrics. However, to genuinely lead and manage people of different backgrounds, successful leaders must go above and beyond specific characteristics currently in the spotlight.
As humans, we are different from each other on many levels, and it’s tempting for leaders to build teams around themselves that are just versions of themselves. This bias can lead to leaders gravitating toward people with the same backgrounds, tastes, and political views or even up-valuing contributions delivered in the same form and pace as their own.
To be a genuinely inclusive leader, one must recognize the value of people and contributions that operate differently from oneself. It’s important to appreciate that being different does not make someone a worse human being or a worse professional. For example, a genuinely inclusive leader is like a teacher who takes the time to ask the shy kid outside the classroom for their input and makes them feel welcome and valued.
Be a funnel, not a tunnel
As you climb the organizational ladder and find yourself in formal leadership positions, the pressure and accountability only intensify. Requests, inquiries, and demands flood in from all directions, and forwarding them to one’s team can be tempting. But is this really what makes a great leader?
Great leaders act as a working funnel rather than a tunnel. In other words, a great leader does not pass on every request to their team like a mindless forward button. Instead, they act as a filter, pushing back on unnecessary or unrealistic demands and prioritizing the time and resources of their team.
Some may argue that this approach is counterproductive, that a leader should pass on all requests and let their team sort it out. However, this short-sighted perspective fails to consider the long-term effects on team morale, productivity, and success.
Great leaders treat their team’s time as a precious resource. Just as you prioritize your time with frameworks like the 80-20 rule or “urgent and important” quadrants, you must apply the same care to prioritize your team’s time. This means pushing back on requests that are not worth their time or do not align with the team’s goals.
Acting as a work funnel extends beyond the immediate benefits to team productivity. It also fosters a sense of trust and respect between the leader and the team. By pushing back on unrealistic demands and prioritizing the team’s time and resources, a great leader shows that they value their team’s work and are committed to their success.
Great leaders prioritize the greater good over personal gain, focus on leaving a lasting positive impact on the world, foster a collaborative and inclusive environment, and have the ability to make difficult decisions in uncertain and risky situations. They understand their role is to empower their team, not demand blind obedience through power or authority. These unconventional competencies may not be easily quantifiable or measurable, but they are essential qualities that set exceptional leaders apart. By embracing these competencies, leaders can build more productive and innovative teams, create a positive and impactful workplace culture, and ultimately improve the world.