What are some underrated traits that great leaders have? This question came up in Quora and I think it is a great one. I wrote a reply in Quora and it also got a feature on Inc.com but to make things simple you can see my thoughts below:
There’s so much written and said about “leadership” that it’s easy to rehash the things everyone already knows. But there are some traits that don’t get played up enough, and while I’m still mastering many of these myself, the best leaders I know embody them.
- Listening. Listening is probably the most underrated trait of great leadership. Early in my career, I had a vision of the leader as the one who answered all the questions and told the team clearly and concisely what to do. Now, I realize that the best leaders ask all the great questions and rely upon their teams to show them what to do. (Disclaimer: While I understand this intellectually, I still do struggle to listen more than I talk.)
- Humility. This is connected to #1. Great leaders are humble. They have the humility to know what they don’t know, and they are open to learning new things constantly. Humility also makes the people who follow a leader respect them and want to work hard on their behalf.
- Broad-minded. The best leaders I know study fields totally outside of their day-to-day work lives. And that’s because they know there’s value in synthesis—infusing ideas from disparate sources to come up with something new. So they are constantly exploring the unfamiliar and studying the unknown.
- Comfortable with solitude. It’s counterintuitive to some people, but leadership and solitude are connected. As a leader, so many things come at you all the time that you need to be able to stay by yourself and think through problems. We don’t appreciate this enough—we tend to think of leaders as extroverted, “people-people.” But in fact, some of the best leaders—both today and throughout history—were the people who were most comfortable being by themselves. (There’s a great essay on this by William Deresiewicz, by the way, which you can read here.)
- Givers. People want to support those who are generous. And the best leaders I know are generous—with their time, their talent, their resources, their money. The social psychologist Adam Grant has done a great deal of work on the idea of “givers”—people who expand what’s possible in the world by what they give. And the best leaders I know happen to be givers, and they constantly find ways to help those around them.
- Failures. I’m very suspicious of people who haven’t failed in some way, and I’m even more suspicious if leaders haven’t failed. Failure is the best teacher there is, and there are so many lessons you learn from falling on your face that you can’t learn any other way. The best leaders I know have failed—some of them many times over. But that’s part of what has given them the wisdom and experience to lead well.
- Mission-focused. This one’s important but often overlooked. The best CEOs I know are often the people who could care less about the title of CEO. They aren’t looking for perks, corner offices, or fat compensation packages. They are so focused on the mission that they can forget how much time has passed at work (in ways that are sometimes unhealthy). But the point, more broadly, is that the best leaders are driven by a mission, and the mission sustains them through the inevitable ups and downs of leadership.