5 Unexpected Qualities of Great Leaders


“I don’t know anyone who planned to be here,” a CEO of a software company remarked during a forum for CEOs. “I think I got here because of a combination of luck, character, and divine design.”

It’s true that you can’t plot your course exactly. But here are five unexpected qualities of virtually every great leader I’ve worked with.

1. Go to grow. If you look at their resumes, successful leaders tend to move around a lot, especially in their twenties and thirties. Every three or four years, they move on to another challenge, often moving from one organization to another, and then back again to the first. “They go to grow,” as one person put it. This growth gives them a wealth of perspective that enables them to manage effectively, no matter what the situation.

2. Leaders are readers. If you look at their bedside tables, leaders tend to read voraciously. Reading teaches people to process information at multiple levels and dimensions quickly. This helps them bring clarity and sensitivity to a situation. “He thinks in a way that allows me to clear away the underbrush and see the forest,” is how one executive describes his boss.

3. Hire and fire. Effective leaders know how to take care of other people – but not at the expense of their company. They demonstrate at an early point in their careers that they can handle the responsibility of firing people. As one put it: “I seem blessed with the ability to fire people without them resenting it.” Leaders don’t get caught up in conflicts between personal friendships and the needs of the organization. When someone isn’t adding value, they let them go quickly.

4. Tolerance. Effective leaders show a high level of tolerance for different political views, religious beliefs, and world views. Typically, they’ve been around enough to understand why people adopt different views, and don’t take it personally when their view differs from someone else’s. As the CEO of a software company put it, “A good leader knows when to engage in a healthy debate, and when the debate is futile.” If the issue relates to personal beliefs or cultural values, effective leaders show respect and appreciation, and thus build trust among people from all sorts of different and diverse backgrounds.

5. The Network. In comparison to others, effective leaders tend to build large networks of people to whom they can turn for business advice, personal counsel, or simply to learn what’s going on in other parts of the business world. And it doesn’t hurt that this network provides a large number of opportunities for jobs, should the leader decide to grow again.

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