So you want to be an executive leader? In this blog, I’ll outline what it takes, including the top 10 executive leadership qualities to be successful. But first, let’s discuss why some people want to lead at the very top. And what they don’t think about when it comes to executive leadership.
The Desire for Executive Leadership
There is a terrific line from the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s at the point in the film where the Tin Man is asking for a heart. The Wizard’s response is both clever and sobering: “As for you, my galvanized friend, you want a heart. You don't know how lucky you are not to have one.”
For thousands of years, storytellers, philosophers, and poets have extolled the benefits of scarcity. They’ve wisely pointed out that the lack of something can often seem the better alternative. From my vantage point the desire for leadership, especially executive leadership, poses a similar quandary or cautious warning: “As for you, my ambitious friend, you want to be a leader. You don’t know how lucky you are not to be one.”
Many of us can speak to the benefits (and privileges) that come with a leadership position. But I find that few reflect on the risk, challenge, frustration, pain, and sacrifice that are of equal weight and measure. Leadership is a tough job. Not a job for those with a faint heart (or no heart for that matter).
And after all, don’t we need plenty of followers to get the work done? And can’t a group of followers do leadership just the same? Famous author and leadership guru Robert K. Greenleaf certainly thought so with his servant leadership philosophy. According to Greenleaf, when leaders become servants, putting the needs of their people first and sharing power, people can grow, make decisions, and organizations thrive.
What It Takes to Be a Great Executive: Top 10 Executive Leadership Qualities
Often a corollary question that follows from “wanting to be a leader” is, "What does it actually take to be a great leader?" Or, to put it another way, what are the qualities that make for great leadership, especially at the very top of business and industry?
Well, having spent 23 years of my career evaluating good and bad leadership, sinners and saints alike, here’s what I believe are the top 10 executive leadership qualities.
1. The desire to lead.
The desire to lead is related, at least in part, to ambition but without the pejorative meaning and unrefined notions of having to elbow one’s way to the top. While I realize that events, circumstances, and even serendipity can elevate one to the ranks of leadership, the most successful executive leaders seem to possess a natural impulse for stepping into the void left by others, filling the breach and sorting things out. These are all crucial behaviors for leadership success at the top.
Though perhaps not an attribute present in every leader we read about or meet, great executive leaders have a constancy of character. They are naturally drawn to do the right thing. While the decision-making process can afford many choices—some traditional, some tempting, some perilous—great executive leaders can often quickly determine the correct heading and set a course by leveraging a compass that is conscientious, equitable, and just.
Notwithstanding my earlier scarcity comment, having choices is a good thing. And one way to cultivate choices is by opening one’s mind. A curious and open mind leads to exploration, investigation, trial and error—all of which contribute to enhanced perspective, knowledge acquisition, and heightened awareness. The great executive leaders that I have met along the way loathe a limited purview. Curiosity leads to insight and insight leads to better leverage in the marketplace of competition.
Not long ago I was listening to a local sportscaster who was pointing out how the many “personal distractions” and “media sideshows” were negatively impacting the focus of a professional football team during its annual practice season. She recognized the importance of focus when attempting to accomplish a task, drive an initiative, or even produce a winning football season. And she was absolutely right. It could be a big initiative or what might seem an inconsequential meeting, but the best executive leaders keep distractions to a minimum. They are purposeful and intent and laser-beam focused on a majority of what they do.
Most of us know what it feels like to be moved to do something, and to then chip in, take action, or even take up a cause. Great executive leaders realize the role they must play as a catalyst for action. In the midst of all the rapid-fire changes and disruptions that are part of a digital and dynamic business environment, the best executive leaders know full well that inertia and apathy can kill a business. So they continually prompt, cajole, and entice others to take action.
In my humble opinion the best leaders show genuine care, empathy, and concern for the people they lead. They do this not at the expense of driving performance or raising the bar, but rather they do this in the midst of driving performance and raising the bar. So, unlike our friend the Tin Man, caring and authentic leaders do indeed have a heart. They are also attentive and alert to the needs of others.
7. Advocate and Coach
Great executive leaders can bring out the best in others, certainly as a catalyst, but also by serving as a terrific mentor and coach. How many successful people do you know who frequently acknowledge that mentor, coach, or manager who was instrumental in their growth, development, and success? Even at the executive ranks and in the C-suite, top leaders help guide the development of those around them. They help ensure a capable cadre of successors are in the ranks and prepared to step up to bigger challenges.
The topic of followership has been in several of my conversations recently, and it’s popped up in a few articles, too. So perhaps the elevation of followership to my list of top 10 executive leadership qualities is due, at least in part, to the recency effect. But, nevertheless, great executive leaders can generate great followership. With thoughtful and compelling ideas complemented by charm, charisma, and positive energy, the ability to engender followership is a huge advantage, especially when guiding an organization and its employees toward an aspirational and worthy goal.
The last thing I want in a leader is someone who projects worry, anxiety, fear, and doubt, even if they do it in the most subtle of ways. Similar to those traits that engender followership, stable and steady leaders draw people toward them. In periods of crisis, they help others stay focused and productive (think, "Keep calm and carry on"). And in periods of bounty, they remain realistic about the cyclical and mutable nature of things. They encourage humility even in the best of times.
10. Instilling Hope
With apologies in advance to Rick Page, the best-selling author of Hope is Not a Strategy, I fully agree—hope is not a good strategy for closing deals. And this is especially true for big, complex deals. But hope is an excellent leadership virtue. People are more inclined to get up, get out, and get to work when their leader can offer a vision of hope: a clear vision that lays plain for all the notion that with hard work and perseverance, things can and will get better, even in the most turbulent times.
The Recipe for Executive Leadership Success
So there you have it—my list of the top 10 executive leadership qualities. You may have noticed things like financial acumen, strategic thinking, and driving execution were demonstrably absent. To be fair, I could make the argument that those are competencies, not qualities.
And from my vantage point, executive leadership competencies, while necessary and important, are really the foundation for successful executive leadership. Layer many of the qualities I’ve listed onto great strategic thinking, planning, and execution skills—leadership skills which can be developed—and you truly have a recipe for executive leadership success.
As you know, in the end the Tin Man got his heart, or at least a testimonial to that fact. How many of these leadership qualities will be part of your leadership testimonial?
So you still want to be an executive leader? Well, you don’t know how lucky you are…
Learn more about the challenges of becoming an executive leader by downloading DDI's eBook, The 4 Forces of Executive Pressure: Why Your Executives Are Drowning.
John DeSantis is an executive consultant in DDI’s Executive Services group, where he helps DDI’s global clients advance their business by gaining powerful and objective insights into the strengths and challenges of current and potential executive leaders.