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Characteristics of highly effective leadership

Part two in a series on leadership

In my last article I described six characteristics of highly effective leaders. This article concludes this series and describes leader characteristics that can be expressed only by adequately possessing the previous six attributes. Here goes:

Highly effective leaders are capable of making bold decisions and abandoning the past if necessary

This is the next step beyond being curious. After hearing all the input, listening to the experts and the naysayers, highly effective leaders make a decision. They also act. I believe this ability “cuts the herd” as many leaders are not capable of taking a bold step forward into the unknown. Highly effective leaders have been described as being capable of looking around corners and seeing what few others see.

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This is closely connected to their degree of observation and cognition and to their command of their emotions, as they have taken the hard journey of embracing, tolerating and finally decrypting uncomfortable feelings (X feeling = X emotion). They have made a leap of consciousness that the most important decisions can’t be made by lifting the lid of their lap top; they can only be supported. (Yes there is a limit to management.)

As decisions become complex and the data isn’t conclusive (I always make more money on spreadsheet farming than in reality), you still need to make a decision with inconclusive data and maybe not even “majority” support. Have you ever made the right decision and ignored expert advice? That’s what I’m talking about. I’m also talking about making a bold decision that your everyday peer group may not understand, because they don’t understand how you think.

Highly effective leaders are able to describe their thinking

This is a higher skill than being descriptive. It’s about having the capacity to describe complex ideas so others can understand your thinking. This is where executive coaching comes in. It is often helpful to have a trained person to assist the leader in processing executive level cognition, so they can understand themselves first; then they can explain their thinking to others. Professional leader development also plays a role here by introducing ways of thinking that help people engage in complex organizational learning. (Yes, I’m still thinking farms.)

Highly effective leaders cultivate diverse networks

This pursuit is essential to develop and support a leader’s thinking. Highly effective leaders keep company with other highly effective leaders because they can keep up with their thinking and are capable of challenging them. This includes leaders from disciplines that may appear unrelated (often some of the best).

Notice that to participate in this space, you must have the abilities that support this level of curiosity, particularly being challenged (to the point of realizing you don’t have a clue what you are doing) and being exposed to ideas that you may not agree with. Highly effective leaders understand the enormous utility in trying to understand all things, including ideas they strongly disagree with.

Highly effective leaders tolerate the anxiety of others

Highly effective leaders expect that when they act as they feel compelled to do, some will resist, and a few may become reactive even to the point of undermining their leadership. Leaders accept that as part of being effective. It has been said that anxious behaviour is a sign of leadership, because the opposite type of leader behaviour is pleasing and/or distance behaviours, which I would describe as basically anti-leadership behaviours.

Don’t conclude that a leader should ignore the reactivity of others. I’m suggesting they should expect it and manage for it. Above all, they shouldn’t back down from a decision solely because it might make someone upset. (How many family businesses does this describe?) Doing so, as a way of leading, basically puts the least emotionally regulated in charge.

Finally, highly effective leaders are a non-anxious presence

The objective of leadership is to actively and intentionally manage their own anxiety by neither holding other people or things responsible for their experience, nor holding themselves responsible for the experience of others.

Equally as important, when situations become tense or difficult, they don’t check out or disconnect.

This capacity has two benefits. First, it affords the leader the mindset to internally process their full experience, so they can clearly know what they want, and act. Second, supporting the emotional regulation of their followers maintains partnership and performance. This is supported in the neuroscience literature, and I hope to cover that in the future.

Mastering all 12 attributes is unlikely without first learning how to do so and having adequate support to continuously practice and develop them.

I’m continually amazed at the time business owners invest in controlling costs, quality, and productivity of the product or service they are producing. Most went to school for two to four years to understand the foundational knowledge that underpins what they produce. They regularly attend conferences and trade shows to keep up with the latest production innovations. I get it. It’s cool, often shiny, and it can be directly connected to the bottom line, because they have spent years learning how to do just that.

I want to emphasize that solutions to the greatest challenges and opportunities are not found in strategy or quick fixes, they are found within the people who have problems.

Kelly Dobson is president of LeaderShift Inc., a leader support and development firm serving small- and medium-sized enterprises (leader-shift.ca). Kelly is also an active fourth-generation farmer at Fairfax, Man.

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