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8 Characteristics of Great Leadership – In spite of the ambiguous research


Over the last several decades lots of research has been done on the subject of successful business leadership. It might be surprising but there is very little agreement on the subject. The short version is that there are very few, if any, commonalities to business success but the long version is that in spite of the research there are in fact some common characteristics of successful leaders. It seems that in all walks of life, great leadership characteristics also show up in the most successful business leaders.

1. Great leaders set a clear direction

When I think about great leaders the one thing that always strikes me is the clarity of their vision. The vision and the skill with which they communicate that vision makes it immediately obvious who to follow. It doesn’t need to be a ‘writ in stone’ declaration, but they might have a simple strategy, an exciting plan, a clear vision or simply demonstrate their path by example. Most importantly they make it clear enough that anyone can understand where they are headed. They know where they are going and so do the people that are following them.

2. They are great motivators 

We all need a little nudge from time to time. Great leaders know when to provide that needed encouragement. Not just inspiring motivation but urging and, if necessary, forcing. The best leaders have taken the time to know how each member of their team is motivated. Combining that knowledge with the team cultural dynamics makes for a powerful motivational recipe.

3. They get things done

Having a penchant for action is by far the most important part of business success. In order for things to get done a great leader needs to be able to make decisions. Being a decisive person is a core leadership responsibility. Getting things done also means knowing what not to do. Starting and stopping projects is the responsibility of all leaders.

4. They get the right things done

Following on from above; it’s not just getting things done, but getting the right things done. There’s no use in being really productive if all the work you do doesn’t achieve the company’s goals. Richard Branson has a famous productivity tool – a to-do list. His to-do list prioritizes the three most important things that need to be done on that day. He maximizes his time to get those three things done and then turns his attention to the rest. Each day starts with a new set of priorities. If something consistently doesn’t make it onto the top three list it gets removed from the list altogether.

5. They sustain momentum

Business opportunities and threats are like the ocean, both tend to come in waves. Reading the waves and knowing how to sustain momentum through good times and bad is critical to long-term success. They are persistent and might even be described as stubborn. Teams watch their leaders for cues on how to react to problems. The flip side to this is that most business leaders, especially young startup leaders, think that business success is an all-out-sprint. By the time they find out it’s a long marathon with lots of ups and downs they’ve blown through their resources and are out of momentum.

6. They lead by example

Great leaders do the things they talk about; walk the talk. Especially in bad times the best leaders don’t just ask others to make sacrifices  they are the first to put their shoulder to the grindstone. Strength under fire is what people notice and remember.

7. They don’t complain and they don’t blame others

Taking responsibility for all aspects of the business means never hiding behind other’s failures. Great leaders own the outcome of every decision they make and stand by their team when things don’t turn out as planned. Looking for reasons to blame others is the shortest way to failure. Leaders that blame others quickly lose respect and the support of their team.

8. Be nice while working hard

Being a kind person isn’t a requirement but it also tends to help in the long term – a lot! Working hard while remaining a kind and thoughtful person can be really tough. The complexity of running a business can often lead to anxiety and stress. Successful leaders don’t take it out on others. They remain calm and considerate. The stereotype of the screaming boss is something best left for daytime television. In the real world kindness and hard work set the best example for great leadership.

Final word; if anyone figures out how to achieve these things without having to spend years learning the hard way please let me know 😉


Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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