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The Building Blocks of Leadership

Six characteristics for making and managing a great team.

May 15, 2013 Photo

First-time managers often wonder what it takes to be a successful leader. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the most well-known British general of World War II, sees leadership as “the capacity and will to rally people to a common purpose” while exhibiting character that inspires confidence. New managers usually have no specific training in leadership, but most have an opinion as to what they believe makes for a successful leader. Most first-time leaders start by treating people the way they themselves would like to be treated. While leading by example is certainly one method of leadership, it may not be the best way to rally people to a common purpose.

Successful leaders take a broader view of what leadership includes. They begin by building diverse teams. They realize the mistake of hiring in their own image or building a team that looks and sounds just like they do. Successful leaders will seek out individuals who have expertise and experience that is different from their own. Like Abraham Lincoln, they will often include members of the “opposition” on the team and create an atmosphere where constructive criticism is encouraged and the status quo is not accepted. Great leaders value the opinion of all team members, whether they agree or disagree with their opinions.

C Successful leaders are great communicators. They project positive energy when they speak and are passionate and persuasive. They use a sense of humor to relieve tension and defuse hostility. Their communications are infused with a sense of urgency and enthusiasm. The successful are able to communicate expectations and vision clearly and, as a result, inspire others to follow them. They encourage a workplace culture that values honesty and integrity by open communication.

L Successful leaders are also active listeners. This is probably the hardest lesson for anyone to learn. Many of us take pride in being great multi-taskers. In reality, successful leaders are noted more for being great listeners than for being great multi-taskers. Successful leaders know that nothing empowers a team member more than giving them undivided attention. This means shutting off the phone, ignoring the email and text chimes, shutting off the computer display, and focusing entirely on the person in front of you. Active listening takes a lot of discipline, but the rewards are worth it, and you will actually hear what the other person is saying. There will be less need for follow-up clarification and fewer misunderstandings. Empowering a team member to speak frankly and listening to what they have to say will lead to consultative discussions and, ultimately, better decisions. Additionally, it reinforces the value of the team member to the organization.

Successful leaders are consummate anticipators. They are constantly taking in information that allows them to anticipate business patterns and trends. To anticipate successfully, you need to seek information from many sources, ask lots of questions, and actually listen to the answers. Anticipation requires that you take a broad view of the industry to see where it is heading next. Successful leaders use technology to their advantage when anticipating a change or a crisis and planning for contingencies. They strive for a balance between technology and the talent of their team when making work assignments.

I Successful leaders are intuitive and instinctual decision makers. They display courage in their willingness to take risks. They still require information, but they do not allow internal and external pressures to motivate their decisions. Those who succeed bring insights into the decision-making process and tackle issues head-on without avoiding uncomfortable situations. They exhibit a mental toughness that allows them to absorb criticism and disappointment without infecting the entire team. Most importantly, truly successful people do not allow failure to disrupt team momentum.

M Successful leaders understand the importance of being a mentor. Obviously, every leader has good management skills, but truly successful leaders focus on their team members and treat them as valued assets. Likewise, they acknowledge the legacy of those who have come before them and build on the strengths of their predecessors rather than dwell on weaknesses. Those who are successful look for ways to make team members feel good about themselves.

Most successful leaders challenge their team members to think. They foster an environment in which the team is not satisfied with the status quo and is always looking for a better way to accomplish its objectives. They mentor and sponsor others to make them successful. By doing so, the focus is more on the success of the team than on their own success. They measure and reward good performance and take corrective action for poor performance. But they also make a distinction between poor performance and hard work that may not have achieved the desired result. Hard work by consistent performers is not taken for granted. The most successful people know how to allocate and deploy talent properly. They also know when a team member is ready for a new challenge.

S Finally, successful leaders focus on a strategic thought process. They sustain progress by serving the people they lead. They motivate, rather than require, their team to share their vision. They ensure that every member of the team understands the vision and how it supports the business strategy, as well as how their job supports that strategy.

“Leadership is the ability to establish standards and manage a creative climate where people are self-motivated toward the mastery of long-term constructive goals, in a participatory environment of mutual respect, compatible with personal values,” according to management development innovator Mike Vance.

Leadership is not an easy task. It requires that you serve the interests of others while aligning your personal values with your organization’s values. It requires that you earn and keep the respect of your peers. Above all, it requires you to realize that your actions, when multiplied by the actions of your team, can reshape the destiny of an organization.

Perhaps Fast Company cofounder Bill Taylor said it best in his article “Do You Pass the Leadership Test?” in the Harvard Business Review: “The true mark of a leader is the willingness to stick with a bold course of action—an unconventional business strategy, a unique product development roadmap, a controversial marketing campaign—even as the rest of the world wonders why you’re not marching in step with the status quo. In other words, real leaders are happy to zig while others zag. They understand that, in an era of hyper-competition and nonstop disruption, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something special.”

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About The Authors
Donna J. Popow

Donna J. Popow, JD, CPCU, AIC, is president of Donna J. Popow LLC, and has more than 25 years of experience in the property and casualty insurance industry. She has been a CLM Fellow since 2007 and can be reached at (215) 630-0829. popow@cpcuiia.org

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