What are the traits of a good 21st century leader?

In my last article, we defined what is and is not the job of a 21st century manager. We started to explore what leaders do. We also busted some leadership myths. Today, I’d like to continue our leadership discussion, specifically on leadership traits. What are the traits of good leaders? Have these traits changed from a hundred years ago? If so, how?

So, what are the basic traits of a good leader?

  1. Integrity
  2. Character
  3. Hard work

Integrity and character are the most important. Without that, people can’t trust you. Trust is the expectation that the other party has integrity, that they will do the right thing. When trust goes down, bureaucracy goes up, creating a vicious cycle. You can read more on integrity in my article, titled “Integrity is not outdated, it’s a crucial leadership quality”. The litmus test of integrity and character comes in three folds: moral, legal and ethical. Is what the leader did moral? Is it legal? And finally, is it ethical?

Hard work is the second most important. Leaders are not promoted to the position, they are not given the title. They become leaders when they work alongside their teammates and earn their respect. It’s an honor to be a leader.

So, are these basic traits the same from a hundred years ago? Yes they are. However, in the 21st century, a good leader needs two more things: communication and transparency.

Great leaders need to be great communicators. They need to communicate clearly the intent, the direction. Repetition is key. Leaders need to over communicate their intent so that the teammates know the direction and understand the problem they are trying to solve. Part of a leader’s job is stakeholder management. A proper stakeholder management requires good communication. Good communications are often simple but hard to do. Throughout my life, I have seen leaders communicate badly. Luckily, there are better ways to communicate, e.g. use storytelling and metaphors. Great leaders tell good stories because people follow those who are good storytellers. We’ll explore this some more in my next article.

Leaders in the 21st century also need to be transparent. Share the good news and do not hold off the bad news. Communicate them clearly and tactfully, and let the team figure out how to deal with the news. Teams can figure out how to resolve problems. This gets back to the trust issue. As I mentioned in my integrity article, deception creates suspicion. Once the leader’s followers smell a lie (or an omission), the thin wire of respect that holds everything in place snaps. Confidence in the leader drains away. This is especially important in this remote working environment where we don’t see each other in the office and can’t have a water-cooler moment when we can just chit chat and “find things out”.

An additional thing to do in this remote world is personal touch. Leaders need to find a way to make personal connections. Perhaps a handwritten note or a phone call. The team wants to know that their leader cares about them, not only their work, but them as a person.

These are the foundations of good leadership. Without them, nothing else matters.

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