There is no one answer to the question ‘what is leadership?’. We all have an idea about what it means to be a good leader, but also tend to regard certain leadership qualities pretty subjectively. This is perhaps why we are more familiar with successful extroverted business leaders and not very aware of those who go about their job quietly but just as effectively. For some, effective leaders have that special something, an X factor that makes their ascendancy to the top ‘a given’ and their success ‘inevitable’. Which among the commonly bandied leadership traits are overvalued? Here’s a look.
Some leadership qualities have knowingly or unwittingly received a disproportionate amount of press. When you think of great leaders, the late Steve Jobs or Richard Branson immediately spring to mind, both uniquely charismatic individuals whose leadership presence has made them global superstars.
But is charisma a preferred quality for leaders? Does a charismatic leader need to be an outgoing personality with exceptional communication skills? Is he/she a glamorous individual who you would immediately notice in a room and feel drawn towards?
Not really. An effective leader can be an introvert – like Bill Gates, Marissa Mayer or Larry Page – and still enjoy the confidence of millions of stakeholders worldwide. They can make a mark in their own way, by dint of their quiet confidence, abundant skill and ability to lead without making a lot of noise.
If you’re not inherently charismatic, you’re doing just fine. Your exceptional qualities and powers are of no use if they only serve your purpose. That is because leading an organization is about taking people along, putting others before you. In contrast, highly public leadership roles – like the ones Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. carried – call for personal charisma, the kind that almost works well for partisan causes in political affairs and global diplomacy.
Instead of trying to project charisma, it is more productive to position yourself as a reliable, trustworthy leader by projecting awareness, intelligence and sincerity. Being a good listener helps as does interacting warmly and refraining from criticizing others or yourself.
Is a high IQ necessary to lead a company? A meta-analysis has found that leaders are less likely to be intelligent and more likely to be conscientious. Which means that individuals who have scaled the ladder of success are perceived as being incredibly intelligent, but may not be the geniuses they are imagined to be? The study found a stronger relationship between successful leadership and the ability to make effective decisions, convince others and stay persistent.
Effective leaders aren’t necessarily born with a higher IQ than those they lead, but they are better at things that support their success in leadership roles:
- They surround themselves with mentors, advisors and people from whom they can learn.
- They are into hero-worship and try to assimilate the advice and ideals of those they admire.
- They are voracious readers, absorbing everything around them and always excited at the opportunity to learn.
- They are fearless in their pursuit of ideas and projects they truly believe in, and they work on them harder than anyone else.
Great leaders are fearless, taking failure and criticism in their stride to achieve their vision. And when that vision comes to life for the world to see, it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to admit that they are probably ‘geniuses’!
An IBM survey of 1,500 leaders worldwide found that creativity was the most desirable trait in leaders today. Creative leaders are better equipped to handle new and complex business environments, transform their organization and keep pace with changing consumer preferences. But in industries where pragmatism matters more than creative thinking, leaders cannot afford to be focused so myopically on individual tasks or ‘pet projects’, and in the process, lose sight of people and organizational goals.
Not all creative initiatives are sustainable in the long run. And ironically, digital advancements have simultaneously encouraged and killed creativity. Digitization of news is affecting core journalistic ethics and culture – media giants would rather invest in what sells – even if means canonizing the very creative USP/hallmark that made them unique in the first place. It is an unfortunate but accepted fact that, for organizations to sustain, keep up and grow, they must not hesitate to eschew certain values that may be perceived as outdated in the digital era and its idiosyncrasies.
Pragmatic leaders face the stress of navigating this conundrum and ensuring that their organizations don’t bleed red ink in the pursuit of failed creativity and innovation. When situations are dire, your operational effectiveness and influence will matter more than your creative ideas. That doesn’t mean creativity isn’t needed or should be discounted. Rather, it should not be treated as a paramount trait, especially in industries where too much creativity can create a culture of entitlement and stifle progress.
The problem with being loyal all the time is that it can choke contrarian views and prevent an expansion of perspectives. When loyalty is expected of leaders, you inevitable form homogeneous groups where everyone pats each other on the back and constructive criticisms are only whispered in private.
Being loyal to the organization’s core values is one thing, misplaced loyalty something else entirely. The strength of an organization and the efficacy of a leader lies in critically thinking through all available options to make the best possible strategic decisions. By committing to unconditional loyalty, you risk stifling creativity and innovation. Loyalty is fine to the extent that it helps the organization’s stated goals, but it shouldn’t mean blindly following what leaders before you have espoused.
The other problem with being strictly loyal is that it can make you vulnerable to yes men who associate with you solely for their own personal gain. It almost always comes in the way of transparency and sends out the wrong message to employees, casting doubts on your judgement and capabilities.
Meta description: Charisma, creativity, genius and loyalty are four of the most overrated qualities in business leaders.