Five Leadership Qualities Great Executives Must Have

For reasons that aren’t exactly clear to me, there’s a powerful tendency to overcomplicate the whole notion of leadership: what it is, why it matters, and how it manifests itself.

I’m not saying it’s a simple concept to master; quite the contrary. We see the evidence of this all around us in our daily lives: whether in business, politics, sports or other endeavors large and small, it’s not easy to find effective leaders who’ve built an enduring record of success.

In my own career, and with the great executives on my team now, I try to keep the leadership formula pretty simple. And yes, I know that scores of business books have been written about leadership, and it’s been the subject of countless courses and seminars in MBA programs. That’s great, and I’m sure each of those offers some value.

But I’ve found that the best way to be a leader, and to help shape high-potential young people into the leaders of tomorrow, is to ensure that these five abilities are always the focal points:

1) Getting the strategy right.

2) Executing that strategy.

3) Putting the right people in the right places.

4) Managing dual priorities that others see as conflicting.

5) Keeping everyone focused on what matters.

Let me explain a little bit about each of these and why I think they’re so important—and why I think that efforts to add more and more layers onto the definition of leadership can be distracting at best and harmful at worst.

1. Getting the Strategy Right. While this has always been a top priority for CEOs, it’s taken on an even greater significance in the past few years because of the highly accelerated pace of change in today’s world. Consumer tastes and needs are shifting faster and more dramatically than ever before—do you have a sustainable strategy for product development and customer engagement and employee engagement that lets you keep pace with this relentless upheaval? Or do you find you’re always playing catch-up with competitors, always struggling to find new sources of revenue, and all too frequently seeing market share taken by competitors that are far more in tune with customers, opportunities, and structural trends?

I am a huge believer in brilliant, razor-sharp operations and execution—but unless those outstanding qualities are being applied to a world-class strategy, that company’s ability to compete and win and grow will diminish.

2. World-Class Operations and Execution. Some consultants and B-school professors are fond of saying that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That conclusion totally misses the point: if the strategy’s right but the company can’t execute, then the problem isn’t an overly hungry culture – it’s weak or incomplete leadership. That’s why I describe my leadership formula as simple—not easy, but simple: the CEO’s got to be able to not only set the right strategy but also drive operational excellence that brings the strategy alive with dynamic new products, sales teams that are highly intelligent and engaging and brilliant new talent that sees the company as a terrific destination.

Operations aren’t just supply chains and automated systems; they are the optimization of people and process across every part of the organization—front office, back office, product development, finance, engineering, customer service, sales, etc.—that allow them to work with the shared purpose of delighting customers, winning new business, creating fantastic new products, and identifying and exploiting opportunities well ahead of competitors.

3. Put the Right People in Place. I know, that sounds pretty simplistic. But again, the margin for error in today’s always-on business world is shrinking rapidly—and in spite of the fantastic applications and systems that are available to companies today, brilliant technology in the service of sub-par managers will yield nothing but sub-par results.

That’s why the business leaders of today have to be able to master this third indispensable discipline: after formulating and communicating the right strategy, and optimizing operations to execute that strategy, CEOs and other top leaders then must be able to build management teams that truly understand the big picture, that understand how their teams must engage inside and outside the company to deliver maximum value, and stay laser-focused on making that strategy come fully alive for customers and prospects.

4. Recognize Business Isn’t an “Either/Or” World. In addition to those three absolutely indispensable qualities outlined above, I want to mention two other attributes that are essential for leaders. We all occasionally get questions like this: “Are we more concerned with long-term vision or short-term execution?” Managers will seek to pick one or the other, but leaders will instinctively know that the answer is “Both!” When asked if employees should focus on cost and efficiency, or growth and innovation, leaders will instinctively answer “Yes!” Another variation is, “Is our primary focus new products or new revenue?” And again, leaders will know that the answer must be both. For most people, those answers can sometimes be counterintuitive—but leaders in today’s turbulent business environment have to be able to not just answer the question but also build teams in such a way that both outcomes stand a high likelihood of success.

5. Stay Focused on those 3 Big Things. I’ll never forget something FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith once said: “In business, the big thing is making sure the big thing stays the big thing.” And to me, the Big Thing is made up of those top 3 qualities: the ability to set the strategy, the ability to harness operational excellence to bring that strategy alive, and the ability to pick the right people to drive relentless execution.

For CEOs and aspiring leaders, distractions abound: the temptation to get caught up in important but non-essential discussions and projects; the tendency to fall back on what you’re comfortable with rather than what needs to be done; and the understandable but dangerous attraction of shiny new toys and trends in today’s remarkably fast-paced world. So I’d add that a second key supporting attribute is one of focus: “The big thing is to make sure the big thing stays the big thing.”

Let me offer one final thought on this issue of focus, and on why I feel CEOs and other leaders would be well served to avoid overcomplicating how they define and deliver leadership. Some people say leadership has to encompass qualities like passion, integrity, vision, energy, commitment, and so forth. Don’t get me wrong—I think those are all wonderful attributes, and there’s nothing wrong with a CEO embracing them.

But the deeper question is this: what does “passion” mean in terms of setting a strategy, or driving world-class execution? If a leader is fiery and high-energy passionate but can’t define a breakthrough strategy, how valuable is that passion? If a candidate for a top position is a rock-solid individual with great integrity but has demonstrated an inability to select great people and put them in the right positions, how does that personal integrity make her or him a better leader?

In some ways, that’s the real challenge of leadership: the ability to push aside anything that’s not directly tied to setting a great strategy, executing upon it brilliantly, and putting terrific people in the right positions.

In my experience, those top three leadership qualities are more than challenging enough, and I’d advise you to let the B-school professors worry about all the other issues.

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