What makes great leaders stand out? Here are 4 winning characteristics every leader should develop

What makes a great leader? 

Over the years, we have seen a stark disconnect between what companies think makes for a strong leader and what actually delivers on their bottom lines.

There is a sensationalised version of what a high-impact leader should look like: a charismatic, extroverted, ridiculously creative, smooth-talker with an Ivy League degree and an incredible ability to make revolutionary decisions with a drop of a hat. 

However, the attributes that truly differentiate high-performing CEOs from the rest of the pack in real life are more simplistic and definitely boring

Nonetheless, they make all the difference, especially in empowering teams to do great things and — subsequently — growing and scaling businesses.

In our work, we have been given the immense privilege of working side-by-side with amazing leaders who get things done, no matter the circumstances. In this article, we share what we’ve observed are the 4 key leadership characteristics that make all the difference.

1. Speedy, data-driven, and accountable decisiveness

Perfectionism is a prized trait when it comes to business leaders, at least in mainstream media. But we believe the value we put on perfectionism is unwarranted.

While making critical decisions takes time, taking too long in search of the “perfect” answer can come at a massive cost to the organisation and the team.

Perfectionist leaders, while often coming to great decisions after an extended period, still become bottlenecks, stifle much-needed progress, and frustrate even the best teams (leading to higher employee attrition).

In the real world, when high-performing leaders make decisions, they don’t always result in massive successes. Instead, they consistently make educated decisions with the information they have earlier, faster, and with more accountability than most.

This innate decisiveness is evident even in the face of incomplete data, inexperience in certain business areas, and uncertainty.

But what if they make mistakes? Sure, mistakes are made along the way. That is a normal part of leadership.

Mistakes can be undone and the lessons learned therein can be used to inform the next best steps and in what direction. Being overly cautious about not making mistakes, on the other hand, can leave even the best brands stuck.

To build on this further, great leaders also know when not to decide.

Not all decisions have to be made on the spot and a decisive leader knows the difference. In that case, leaders must decide 1) if they are the best people to make the call or someone else and 2) if the decision can be delayed for a time (without causing irreversible damage) until more relevant data can be collected.

So, how do you start becoming more decisive?

We suggest acting once you have at least 75% of the crucial data needed to make an informed decision. Another tip is asking a selected group of reliable advisers for multiple, brutally honest opinions on how to best move forward. 

And, lastly, drawing on your own experience and professional instincts when it comes to 1) weighing the impact if things go wrong and 2) figuring out the impact on other people if you choose to delay.

2. Impactful relationship-building and engagement skills

Once leaders have set the best direction for their company to go, they now need to focus on the four concepts that factor into creating high-impact relationships and engagement: Awareness, performance, goal alignment, and results.

When leaders develop a hyper-awareness of their stakeholders’ motivations and needs, they know exactly what goals to hit and align their performance requirements with the results they want to achieve.

For them to do this successfully, they need to get key individuals to buy into the journey no matter how unpopular or uncomfortable it can be. 

How do you do this?

First, identify who these key people are. Next, pinpoint the critics and wrap your head around their issues regarding your plans. Finally, find a way to create opportunities to establish common ground with (and alleviate objections of) apprehensive stakeholders, instil confidence in teams, and foster the belief that the company’s overall success is everyone’s success, too.

Conflict is normal as people will always have objections. The goal is not to please everyone but to get them in the right emotional and mental space to become more accepting of positive change and the growing pains that come with it. 

Give everyone a voice, listen, and incorporate useful insights, but be careful not to strive for 100% consensus. It slows down progress. And, sometimes, what is best for everyone might not be what is best for the company’s bottom line.

At the end of the day, you — as a well-informed leader — have the final say and having them on board is the best way to move forward. 

3. Strategic flexibility and adaptiveness

What do successful leaders do when things do not go according to plan? They adapt, improvise, and overcome in strategic fashion.

The real world does not come with a manual. Setbacks are part and parcel of an ever-changing world. During these times, high-impact leaders expertly remain proactive and pivot when their best laid-out plans get thrown out the window. 

They turn their mistakes into lessons. They study every lesson and incorporate its value into an even better Plan B.

Our tip would be to focus most of your energy on long-term planning. This is not to say that short-term plans are not helpful. However, long-term planning gives you a bird’s eye view of future issues before they develop into costly present problems.

Tap into vast, diverse networks. 

What are they saying that is in contrast to your echo chambers? How is the data relevant to your company and situation? What trends are you seeing currently (and what are the most likely to become future trends)? What direction will your competitors likely go? How can you leverage these insights to foster more growth and scale for your brand in both the now and the future?

4. Consistent and reliable performance capabilities

Great leaders showcase calm and stability in the face of crises and deliver positive, steady results regardless of the odds. However, they are not miracle workers.

Instead, they set realistic expectations, do their due diligence, and put forth tailored, sustainable plans that help them replicate varying degrees of success over and over.

How do they do it?

First, they dig their hands into the mud — budget reports, existing plans, and stakeholder expectations — while simultaneously evaluating the business’ potential, capacities, and resources so they can assess what can and cannot be done.

Second, they deploy robust organisation and planning skills. This can mean overhauling current organisation practices that no longer work (while keeping and even streamlining practices that still offer value), creating strong checks and balances to keep everyone accountable, and building an infrastructure that makes quick course corrections possible.

Finally, they always surround themselves with a talented and reliable team. The right team is every exceptional leader’s greatest weapon. Teams are a steady source of new ideas, different points of view, and relevant high-performance capabilities that turn ideas into reality. 

Remember to choose a team that is suited for the scale-up life. Hire beyond personal comfort and loyalty. Go for those who share the same aspirations and possess diversified talents, insights, and backgrounds. A team that shares a common identity and understanding. And, lastly, a team who holds the same appetite for taking smart risks. (Read moreHow do you build high-performing teams? Here are the 4 fundamentals you need to get right.)

There is no such thing as the “perfect” leader. Exceptional decisiveness, relationship-building and engagement skills, flexibility and adaptiveness, and performance capabilities can manifest differently, depending on a company’s needs and industry. 

One thing is constant, however, and that is a feverish consistency in trying to emulate these 4 characteristics through the highs and lows of a business’ journey.

In our line of business, we have collaborated with multiple scale-ups in search of the best leaders that will help steer their brands in the direction of uncapped growth and scale. Partner with us if you want us to do the same for you.

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