5 Underrated Elements of Great Leadership

There is no shortage of leadership development content.  Amazon has over 21,000 book titles devoted to the subject alone, which begs the question, “Why write about it with so much having already been written?”

The answer is that I simply don’t see very much content on what I consider to be some of the more underrated elements of great leadership.  Much is written on improving areas of competency, character, networking skills, influence, positive thinking, team work etc.  However, some of the leadership qualities I see in the best leaders get little air time in books or podcasts.  So here are 5 undervalued qualities I see in the best leaders:

1) Righteous Charisma

There is a righteous and unrighteous use of manipulation. The first definition you find for manipulation is, “handle or control (a tool, mechanism, etc.), typically in a skillful manner”.  There is a kind of coercive use of manipulation that leaders use to get their way and positon themselves with more power.  On the flipside, there is a righteous use of charisma that is deployed for the benefit of others.  There is no better example of this than the parenting of a loving mother.  When a child skins their knee or has their feelings hurt, mothers frequently and naturally use righteous charisma.  The calming voice that assuages fear.  The gentle embrace and affirmation of all the great qualities in the child. At some level this is righteous charisma.  When we put people at ease to eliminate anxiety from the board room or class room, we do so through the means of righteous charisma.  When we make light-hearted jokes and create conversation to involve a newcomer who might feel like an outsider, we leverage righteous charisma.  The best leaders always prioritize the team over their own interests. Sometimes this means exuding calm and cheer in tough or anxious times.

2) Authentic Transparency

It may seem redundant to say “authentic transparency”, but I do so to differentiate between “faux transparency”.  People crave real leadership that is authentic.  Teams are eager to follow leaders with the courage to be open about their own weaknesses.  It is comforting to discover those “Oh, you too?” commonalities.  However, like all good things there is an evil counterfeit.  Faux transparency is as detrimental as a lack of transparency – maybe even more so.  It creates the appearance of something that is not actually there.  Here are a couple examples of faux transparency:

  1. Always embracing your admirable weaknesses. If your best moments of transparency are to be open about your lack of patience or your tendency to work too much you might be guilty of faux transparency. I get it – no leader wants to admit that they are insecure or arrogant.  And living your life as an open book for everyone isn’t necessarily wise, but a few people should know what you are really struggling with.
  1. Apologizing poorly. There are real, meaningful apologies that leaders make when they have made a mistake or hurt someone. Then there are political apologies.  These apologies are intended to assuage the one hurt, but aren’t really an offering of remorse.  If you apologize to maintain political capital, you are guilty of faux transparency.

3) Open-hearted Thick Skin

Admittedly this phrase is a bit odd, but I couldn’t think of another way to describe this quality. (Suggestions are welcome)  Leaders are by very nature going to be on the receiving end of criticism.  Some of it will be fair, some of it unfair.  There is no way around this reality.  You can’t find a single leader who doesn’t face criticism, including Jesus.  If we’re overly sensitive to criticism we’ll get sidetracked from our mission. We might end up as people pleasers, inevitably pleasing no one.  At the same time if we are impervious to all criticism, we’ll miss out on opportunities to grow.  We may end up isolating ourselves and making poor decisions that hurt us and others because we weren’t willing to listen to dissent.  This is a hard balance to strike.  Here are two tips:

  1. Ignore anonymous criticism and criticism from chronically critical people.
  2. Listen to spoken criticism, especially when coming from friends or family.

4) Gracious Guts

Leaders are often required to make really difficult choices.  You might have to dismiss an employee or send a rejection letter.  Sometimes you a have to let a student’s ‘F’ stand in the face of parental dissidence.  It takes guts to make decisions that will hurt someone’s feelings or disappoint their view of you.  That’s leadership.  At the same time, this kind of leadership doesn’t have to be harsh, inconsiderate or reactionary.  Take no joy in confrontation, but by all means confront.  Make difficult personnel choices, and be generous with severance.  Look people in the eye instead of shooting an e-mail.  Follow-up with care.  Guts and Grace can go together.

5) Steely Grit

Last, but certainly not least is this extraordinary intangible.  In my younger years I was convinced my father and grandfather were over-the-top with how they parented me.  Saturday mornings didn’t equal seeping in when I was a kid.  It meant getting up early with dad and grandpa to split wood, dig ditches, feed the chickens and go to work at the gas station.  My grandfather would get so angry if I didn’t wear a belt.  Dad would say ‘suck it up’ when I complained about the time of day or the coldness of the temperature.  My grandfather literally would buy me a cup of coffee when I was 8 years old while we were on the way to the shop at 6:45am.

Today, I am so grateful for their over-the-top disinterest in my comfort and ease.  Life is hard.  If you’re going to be successful in life you better have a hearty dose of steely grit.  The kind of determination that refuses to stay down when you’re knocked down.  The kind of resilience to keep fighting when it would be understood and simpler to give in.  I’m concerned about the loss of ‘grit training’ in our current culture of parenting.  I was told by a behavioral expert that ‘work ethic’ is largely developed before the age of 13.  In other words, steely grit is most likely to be the product of your childhood development than something you can learn reading a book.  This means kids needs parents to allow things to be hard sometimes.  Sure, it will take longer for them to rake the leaves, clean their rooms and climb the hill.  That’s OK.  It’s building grit.  They are going to need a lot of it.

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