Dynamic, determined, visionary, intelligent, stubborn, tough, bold, infallible. These are some of the stereotypical adjectives that usually accompany the description of a leader’s profile. Many of them display the qualities of a true leader, but not all of them. To make it sharper, not all the usual, stereotypical features constitute the essential qualities of a true leader.
It is often believed that leaders know everything about everything, leaders never bend, leaders are fierce and loud.
What a stereotypical, inexistent, and disorienting myth!
… and Unspoken Truths
There are many unspoken truths about the crucial characteristics of a leader; the virtues – as I would prefer to call them – of a true leader are just one of those truths.
During my 30+ years in business, I have been taught several lessons from leaders with whom I co-existed. I realize that the lessons involve a common standpoint about what is and what is not a true leader, and what are the deepest human characteristics that differentiate a true leader from someone who is just given authority.
Thinking about all these, I came up with ten simple, yet very revealing features. No doubt, they are not the typical leadership traits we usually acknowledge. Next to many important qualities, such as courage, honesty, hard work, perseverance, which we accurately attribute to leaders, there are also ten dynamically silent human characteristics, ten “misconceived” virtues, ten unspoken truths, which – in my opinion – constitute the undisputed decalogue of a true leader.
These are vital human qualities, absolutely necessary in disruptive times, such as the ones we are currently experiencing, and which are not expected to end soon.
The Virtues of a True Leader … in simple words
A true leader is:
Leadership positions often lead to arrogance. There are plenty of examples of people who were “uncovered” when they obtained power, and as a result, they changed their behavior and acted with unforeseen arrogance.
The humble leader does not change her attitude due to authority. She keeps her humility. Besides, she is pretty aware of her little significance in the greatness of the world. She respects her associates and perceives their existence as a divine gift for which she is grateful. Authority is a synonym to responsibility in her mind.
Her humility is a sign of self-awareness, personal maturity, and learning agility.
The leader has the right to be afraid, to be moved, to be anxious, even to be ignorant in some cases. She does not stay dry in the rain; she does not stay untouched in the storm – that’s normal. Of course, as a leader, she has the ability and the courage to manage adversities and move forward with composure and realism.
Displaying an “ordinary” human trait, such as vulnerability, is a sign of a comprehensive personality for a true leader.
The leader is not perfect. She makes mistakes, admits them, and corrects them. Every mistake makes her wiser, every trouble makes her stronger. There are no infallible leaders, only fake perfectionists.
(A little personal confession: During my own leadership path, I received the greatest understanding and support from my colleagues when I publicly admitted a mistake I had made and which I made sure to restore quickly. I did not hear the “wow, at last, she got it!” of their relief, but I felt the strong positive waves toward me).
Failure is an option. The true leader does not stubbornly follow the proven-wrong and short-sighted doctrine of “failure is not an option”. She is prepared for failure, she knows she will have to bend sometimes, she is careful not to break. Her own doctrine is “bend, not break” (like the bamboo), as Ping Fu has so clearly and shockingly explained in her book.
During the rise of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown, there were cases of arrogant leaders whose emotional and social intelligence scored “high” negative numbers, and – unfortunately, few – cases of leaders who bent, commiserated, shared feelings and managed to get up again stretching a helping hand toward their associates, too.
The true leader exercises the so-called “active listening”. She listens carefully, with interest and truly caring. She talks less and listens more. The true leader is not loud. She is not imposing herself by voice; she communicates with people in a dignified way. She is quiet.
The quiet leader is a “peaceful force”. She knows when to be silent and when to pursue her vision with zeal and determination.
There is no greater joy than that of “giving”, of “sharing” for a true leader. She shares what she knows, she supports her people to enhance their knowledge and skills, she is happy to see them grow. The more she gives the better she feels and the more she gets back.
Giving is a winning strategy for a true leader.
Being polite is not a sign of weakness; behaving in a rude way is not a sign of strength. Kindness brings people together, connects them, inspires them. The true leader behaves respectfully. This makes her people committed to her vision.
Unkind leaders who base their authority on fear and dependency soon experience the “boomerang” effect of their behavior.
The true leader forgives the mistakes and failures of people trying to reach their goals. She realizes that everyone has the right to make mistakes. In this way, she gives a clear sign to her people not to lie, not to hide, not to avoid taking responsibility. On the other hand, the true leader does not forgive lies, envy, hatred, mediocracy.
Forgiveness is strong, looking forward weapon for a true leader.
The true leader “puts her feet in other people’s shoes” to understand how they feel. “Being one of them” is the “magnet” in her hands. Her holistic approach is her steady compass for decision making.
It is true that being compassionate is more often met in women leaders, but this is not a matter of gender inherited DNA; it is more the result of the female reaction to social circumstances and experiences who make women more compassionate than men. Of course, it would be great if men took some lessons of compassion from women.
The true leader does not pretend, does not imitate, does not play roles she does not identify with. She is the same person at work and in the rest of her life. She shapes her position of high responsibility according to her own authentic characteristics.
Authenticity is not just about honesty for a true leader. It captures the profound life- values of hers.
We need leaders with essential human virtues
In this unexpectedly disruptive era, and the similar ones that will follow, where everything changes and new possibilities are constantly revealed, where courage and weakness are aspects of the same pattern, the virtues of the leaders are extremely important for our future.
We need leaders with a human, integrated personality to adapt to new work and life conditions, to be able to produce and inspire in these entirely unprecedented conditions. The ten “misconceived” virtues of a true leader ensure business effectiveness while keeping a respectable level of people’s well-being at work and life.
Anyone who dreams to become a leader should adopt these virtues. Anyone who is already leading should exercise these virtues. Anyone who does not align with these indispensable and “misconceived” virtues should step down. Now.
We cannot proceed with obsolete leadership traits; we should not sacrifice our children’s future for the sake of the myths we have wrongfully adopted for years.
True leaders of today and tomorrow need to re-establish the human aspect of their role.