Each week in the Words to Lead by series from CONNECT2Sell, we’re examining various aspects of leadership. We’ve defined the differences and need to have the right:
- Traits (the focus of this post)
Being an effective leader requires the whole package. Behaviors are listed at the top because that’s what others see. Behaviors, then, are the place to focus first.
Your characteristics, attributes and traits will influence the behaviors you choose to display. Ultimately, it’s important to be aligned in what you believe, portray, and say.
All too often, the way we define and/or describe leadership is vague and generalized. We broadly associate a number of virtues with leadership, but we don’t take time to understand why those presumed virtues make someone more effective at leading. We also fail to acknowledge that people who aren’t very virtuous also, at times, effectively lead others. A certain WWII figure, for example, was quite effective in leading many people astray. Few would describe him as virtuous, and few of the positive characteristics and traits we associate with leaders can be ascribed to him.
As much as we’d like our leaders to be virtuous, that desire or assumption doesn’t help much. Virtues change over time and aren’t the same from one group to another. Similarly, the traits we look for in leaders could be situational, group-specific, or essential because the rest of the group is lacking.
Traits, unlike characteristics, don’t necessarily stem from the values and morals we choose. Traits do distinguish one person from another. You can, with focus and work, develop some of the traits you desire. If you want, for example, to be known as someone who is reliable, you can build habits for delivering high quality work on time every time. If you want to be seen as someone who is polished, you can take classes on enunciation and take steps to maintain a professional, polished appearance.
Don't Forget about Your Differentiating Traits. They Make You Special!
What are your strongest traits? What already sets you apart from others?
It’s smart to start with your strengths. Knowing what they are gives you a solid foundation for either selecting a work environment and field where your strengths are highly prized and/or accessing these strengths to acquire additional ones in the easiest way possible. If you’ve never taken the self-assessment from Gallup known as CliftonStrengths or StrengthsFinder, be sure to get a copy of the book that includes an access code for that assessment. It’s well worth the investment!
Don’t make the mistake so many others do. If you’re comparing yourself to others, you’re missing out on the opportunity to discover and fully leverage your own special traits. So what if most of your colleagues are stronger idea generators than you are? Who cares if you’re not innovative and creative? Maybe your strength as an implementor is exactly what your team really needs… someone to take others’ great ideas and activate them, create and execute project plans for them, and follow through to make sure they don’t get lost as new ideas keep bubbling up.
Instead of looking at yourself and what you haven’t got, look at the needs of your team and workplace. The aspects of your job that bug you might be the opportunities you have for making a big impact. If it irritates you that meetings never start on time and never seem to produce concrete action plans, this may indicate that you have a strength for identifying issues and could solve those problems better than others. Your strengths for organizing, facilitating, and offering some rigor might be welcome and necessary for the overall health of the team.
It’s easy to sit back and criticize the way things are. As a leader, though, you have an obligation to offer improvements even if they are small and incremental. When you see a problem, determine what you can do to contribute to a solution. Don’t worry that it’s only a part of the solution. You’ll be setting an example for others who may also be able to contribute something small of their own.
It’s also easy to minimize yourself and opt out because you’re not ___ enough (there are an infinite number of words we could put in that blank!). As a leader, though, you have a responsibility to maximize your contributions using whatever strengths you already have. You may even have a responsibility to stretch yourself and build strengths you don’t have (but that’s advanced level work, and there’s no need to dwell on that today!).
A timely reminder – yes, YOU are a leader. It’s not about job title, position on the org chart, hierarchy, authority, or appointment. Everyone is a leader. Stepping into your full potential as a leader will require you to act like a leader. And that includes using the strengths, trait, abilities, and behaviors you already have in your wheelhouse for the good of the group.
Waiting around for others to lead usually leads to disappointment. It’s self-limiting and less fulfilling than making the difference you can and want to make.
Let Others See the Real You, Including Your Imperfections
You may, by now, be thinking that your traits aren’t all that special or necessary in your workplace. Maybe you feel that your strengths aren’t what the group needs or wants. Or maybe a fear of exposure keeps you from putting yourself out there.
Here’s a shocker. Your imperfections and work-in-progress traits can be very useful, too. Here are three ways your less-than-perfect traits can make a difference.
First, knowing and acknowledging your areas for development is the only way you’ll ever be able to do something more than what you’re doing right now. Growth requires the humility to admit what you can’t do, aren’t comfortable doing, or haven’t mastered yet. No one has it all. No one expects you to have it all. What they do expect is that you’re interested in growing and willing to do the work of learning, growing, trying, failing, and trying again.
Second, learning about yourself is powerful. Learning your outer limits and seeing them expand over time is a profound experience. As you try new things, fail, and learn any skill or trait, you’ll also be learning about yourself.
"Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult." - Warren Bennis
Finally, think about the impact you can have on others when you model the practices of admitting what you can’t do, dedicating time to practice and learn, taking risks to try, failing at first, and then brushing yourself up and trying again and again until you succeed. Remember, because you’re a leader, people are watching. They may even be waiting to see what you do. They will emulate you. Wouldn’t you like to unleash their potential, too, by making it okay to learn and grow?
As you model your imperfections, you’ll get to know yourself better AND others will be able to get better acquainted with you, too. This engenders trust and human-to-human bonds with others. No matter what your formal work relationship – boss: direct report, peer: peer, or seller: buyer – you can strengthen connections as you show more of who you are to others.
Think about someone at work who you don’t really trust. If you think about the reasons for your mistrust, chances are that there’s some element of simply not knowing that person. The part of themselves they reserve and don’t share causes you to doubt them. Their intentions for masking who they are may be no different from your own… and the way others feel about you might be the same, too.
Which Powerful Traits of Successful Leaders Do You Share?
Once you’ve discovered your strengths and considered which traits are most needed in your workplace, you’ll be on your way to even more effective leadership already.
What we’ve described so far in this post suggests that there are some traits that are particularly helpful. These traits make it easier to reveal yourself to others, to make public mistakes, and to regain confidence so you can keep going despite those errors.
- Vulnerable: Capable of being wounded or hurt; open to criticism
- Resilient: Able to rebound or recover; returning to the original form after being stretched
- Transparent: Easily seen through, recognizable, or detected; obvious
- Authentic: Not false or copied; genuine, real; representing one’s true nature or beliefs
- Assertive: Self-assured; confident in pursuing what is desired
If these traits don’t come naturally to you, don’t rule them out forever. Acquiring traits does require focus and practice. But these traits are accessible to anyone who wants them and is willing to work for them. There will be some discomfort, especially at first. Push through it, and you’ll experience it less and less over time.
There’s no need to work on all of this at once. Pick one. Observe how others demonstrate that trait and try some of their techniques. Try on the techniques you see. If they absolutely don’t work for you, move on to try something else. Find what works for you and keep at it. This won’t happen overnight.
You get bonus points if you tell people what you’re working on and ask them for feedback. Creating accountability will give you an extra incentive at the very same time that you’re demonstrating these traits. Don’t feel defensive if you get feedback – it’s intended to help. Don’t make excuses when you backslide or miss opportunities to display a trait you’re working on. Instead, use that as a learning opportunity so you can respond differently the next time.
Give yourself credit, too, for any of these traits that you already share with successful leaders. Your strengths are the platform you should stand tall on when you stretch toward the traits you want to build. Everyone is working on something (or should be!) so there’s absolutely no shame in what you’ll be doing to improve your leadership.