As a former divisional COO at a Fortune 500 company who started literally in the mail room, and over the last 10 years as an executive coach, I’ve lived, practiced, studied, observed, and reflected often on the essence of great leadership.
Here are ten themes I would categorize as “essentials” -- that whatever will be my next opportunity to lead, I hold them as daily reminders to help me be at my best.
1. Leadership means showing your people why they should care about your mission. Make sure they are fully on board with it, and they're more likely to give you great, rather than simply “good enough,” day after day.
2. Leadership means managing any tendency to expect of yourself or others perfect work each time. Notice and learn when good is more appropriate than perfect, and you’ll create an effective and engaged team, even as you lead more effectively.
3. Leadership means finding a healthy balance in the distinction between being "informed" and "involved," and between “guiding others to do” and “doing it yourself.” Walk those balances well, and you’re more likely to lead and succeed.
4. Leadership means letting go of someone who’s no longer an effective contributor, if you’ve been quite candid, and there’s no pattern of change. It’s important ultimately to recognize that the apple tree is only going to produce apples, no matter how much you wish it could make an orange. That acceptance is intrinsic to leadership.
5. Leadership means owning inevitable errors and failures, even though fear or stress would tempt you to distance yourself from them. Don’t hide from what’s ugly but true. Aside from being good leadership, an error owned and transcended tends to result in great achievements.
6. Leadership means innovation. True innovation isn’t in a method, process, book, or workshop. It’s in the mirror of your imagination and courage – innovation is, simply, your inspired heart in action.
7. Leadership means making positive (and not negative) impacts on individuals, communities, natural resources, and economic and political ecosystems. Your achievements as a leader will ultimately be measured and moderated by the quality and the positivity of your impacts.
8. Leadership means candor with yourself and others -- both emotionally and intellectually -- and being willing to ask for and hear such honesty from colleagues, clients, and the communities you impact. Great honesty brings the humility needed for great leadership when things are going well, and the necessary fuel for critical change when things are in trouble.
9. Leadership means delegating the “what,” and not the “how,” to launch your people into effective, independent action. It’s honoring them as adults, and coaching / supporting them to find their own ingenuity, even when telling them would be faster.
10. Leadership means asking and listening, rather than “telling,” the majority of the time. It’s trusting the people who know best what’s needed in your organization are the ones actually doing the work and your customers. Your job is to quiet the noise of your own preconceptions and ego in order to hear those who know best: the wisdom of your workforce and clients.