Characteristics of Effective Leaders

The following is adapted from my book, A Vigorous Life.


Learning to effectively lead a team is a respectable and rewarding way to become something greater. The complex art of leadership is constantly evolving in response to an even more complex world. Knowing this makes searching for quality leadership guidance tiresome and at times misleading. For this reason, when it came time to choose a thesis for my doctorate, I decided to switch my research emphasis from sports and exercise science to leadership. Putting all my previous research aside in exchange for my desire to learn more about the mental aspect of helping others achieve their goals. I sought out to discover the best repeatable sources for leadership guidance applicable to any endeavor I encountered.



I wanted to find leadership lessons that are filtered through an environment which mimics our overall society. I was looking for sources of lessons where my sample matched the current overall leadership environment. A population of leaders that people can study from a wide range of experiences and knowledge from multiple domains.

My research began by comparing industries to determine which ones best represent our current society. After some time examining different fields, I started noticing a trend that organizations commonly refer to their groups as teams with missions, and this got me thinking, the world in which leaders are currently operating is diverse and dynamic just like sports teams and military units and because of this, it may be worth studying the best leaders in these two fields if I want to learn what characteristics best represent the current leadership environment.


Both sports teams and military units are rapidly changing their people in an attempt to outpace the competition. Moreover, the diversity between and within sports teams and military units matches that of the most complex global organizations. The diversity between two teams within the same sport can be as dramatic as any international company and the same is well-known about the military. Consider cultural differences between American Football in Texas and the Northeast or cultural differences between east coast and west coast Navy Seals. They are both the same entity, yet cultural differences mold each group into its own tribe.


Additionally, the dynamic environments created through constant player and coaching staff trades outpace any Wall Street business. Again, military units are historically known for rapid deployments and the ability to be ready for anything in a moment’s notice. Sports teams are constantly trading players with little continuity throughout seasons and military bases around the world are always rotating troops.


After identifying my two industries, I conducted my doctoral dissertation to see just how similar the two industries were, finding a 94 percent relationship. That goes to say that there was a less than six percent chance of finding a result this close or closer. This finding indicates that leadership styles used in sports can be applied to the military and vice versa with a high expectation that the lessons learned will transfer.


Upon learning this, it made sense to examine both industries in hopes of identifying common leadership styles employed by their top leaders. I spent years reading hundreds of sport and military research findings and books, taking note of any characteristic that was considered one of an effective or respected leader by the author or a quoted subordinate of an examined leader. I then categorized the most commonly reoccurring leadership characteristics as identified by other researcher’s studies as well as journals and literature reviews of commonly referenced leadership icons in both sports and the military into five characteristics. The five leadership characteristics are, professional excellence, positive personality traits, team cohesion, well-balanced vision, and empathy. The following list these characteristics as well as their composing traits. Discussing each leadership characteristic in greater detail. I hope you consider my findings when forming your unique leadership identity.


Professional Excellence


Leaders are the heart of building great teams. They are the ones who bring people closer and help them grow from talented individuals to collaborating high performers. If you want proof of this, just look at Sir Earnest Shackleton’s epic Antarctic adventure I referred to where Shackleton kept his shipwrecked 28 man crew alive for 21 months. Including being stranded in their ice-trapped boat for ten months, camping on ice floes for five months, sailing on small boats for a few weeks, then surviving on uninhabited Elephant Island for a few more weeks. When Shackleton took a six-man crew on a 17 day 800 mile journey from Elephant Island to the inhabited South Georgia Island to get help, they landed their boat on the wrong side of South Georgia Island and had to traverse uncharted mountains with no gear for 26 miles. After traversing the previously unexplored mountain range, they finally found help. Even then, it took Shackleton three attempts to rescue the remaining crew on Elephant Island. In the end, everyone was rescued. He had prevailed, and his team survived what was perhaps the greatest exhibition of survival and collaboration in modern history.


A leader’s exemplification of their professional excellence is at the center of being a leader in your profession. Showing your dedication to your discipline is how leaders gain their followers’ trust. Shackleton’s men would have caused a mutiny if he was not the expedition leader they needed. The best way to form trusting relationships is by sharing your knowledge with your people, this way no one feels left out of the group. Properly coordinating events without interference so your people can get the proper training they need. Building a sense of connectedness within the team, so everyone remembers they are part of something greater. Showing your team you are courageous enough to put the right cause before yourself, and empowering your people before taking care of your personal needs.


Shackleton enacted these traits throughout his entire expedition. He did it by accommodating his past Antarctic exploration experience, charismatic personality, and failed yet knowledgeable business attempts to the current situation. Shackleton had a high-performance standard, taking all of his experience and shaping it into an ideal of what was needed in that moment. His blend of traits may not have worked for other situations, but it was the perfect mix of professional excellence for his current situation. He had the perfect blend of sharing valuable knowledge with his crew and keeping harmful information away from them. Through this, he was able to empower his subordinates and lead by example. Leaders of professional excellence motivate by helping their people grow as professionals and they do this by being an ideal example of a person in their profession.

Positive Personality Traits


Aristotle believed we form friendships based on a person’s utility, pleasure, and goodness. Goodness being how respectable and moral a person’s character is. Leaders are an example of goodness; they embody positive personality traits.

Imagine showing up to work and finding a manager who has not invested time in learning her job. Now imagine showing up and being welcomed by a manager who is fully competent in her craft. The first manager, you most likely will have no respect.


The second manager, chances are you will trust her word and follow her lead. It is difficult to follow someone who does not motivate you with their sheer presence. The characteristics that make leaders more than managers is their personality. Who they are as an individual, not just what they have to do. Leaders do not follow their soldiers into battle, they lead them into battle. Leaders do this not only because they are competent professionals in their craft, but because they are leaders of personal prowess. They have moxie and take pride in being someone worth being around.

With that said, showing high work ethic and determination toward the team’s goal are the best ways of proving you are worth following. The best leaders are motivators. They have the ability to inspire an entire organization behind an idea. No one in recent history did this better than Steve Jobs. When Steve started Apple in his garage, he never thought one day he would be kicked out by his board of directors. After leaving and starting other successful companies including Pixar, he was brought back on board to correct course and get the company moving in the right direction. He made Apple better than anyone could ever have imagined, Mr. Jobs was the cover model of high work ethic and determination.


Steve Jobs had a high work ethic, determination, motivation, and prowess in his field that would not allow him to quit. Even when he appeared to be losing, he was taking his past experiences and applying them to new ideas. Always finding fuel for his fire and never giving up. He focused on learning more about his industry and eventually regained control of his company. Those are positive personality traits that define a leader someone wants to follow.


Effective leaders take control of situations, letting their people know they are in charge. Jobs had a reputation of being tough on his people, but if he wanted the best out of them, he had to hold them to a high standard. Jobs had a vision, and to execute that vision he had to maintain control of the situation. A leader is not leading if they are not in control. With that said, to lead effectively, leaders must empower their people to perform independently without micromanagement and for that to happen the way the leader wants it, leaders must provide top-notch training and instruction for their people so they can eventually operate with less oversight.


Leaders are coaches, and the best coaches are themselves lifelong learners. Picture your favorite coach. Did they have control of the situation while being a role model? Did they provide you and the team with thought out quality training and instruction? All leaders like all coaches have a unique way of working with their people, but the best ones are always loaded with positive personality traits. The best coaches are teachers who get their hands dirty with you. Steve Jobs built Apple alongside his staff, twice. There is not a more positive feeling than knowing someone is going through something with you. If that someone is your leader, chances are your admiration for them will get you to do near anything.


Team Cohesion


Although an individual’s self-worth is paramount and should always have a voice in the team, teams are more powerful when leaders highlight the strength of the team over the strength of the individual. As invaluable as your strengths are as an individual, it is your strengths paired with your team that you create real change and overcome insurmountable odds. Leaders do this by painting positive mental models of the team for their people and letting them know they are a top caliber group. Leaders inspire and motivate; they rarely bark orders. If you need to rely on your authority or rank to lead, it will not paint as positive of a picture as your people seeing you care and support them.

Team cohesion is a leader’s responsibility and can be improved by providing unparalleled support and encouraging open vertical and horizontal communication channels. The glue holding a team together is stronger when the team feels they are supported and are included in discussions.


When Great Britain was under constant bombardment during World War Two, Sir Winston Churchill kept the country together as bombs exploded in citizen’s living rooms and stores came crashing down into their basements. He painted a positive image of Britain surviving anything because that is Britain’s identity. A team needs a collective identity if it is to work as one unit. Once a team starts fragmenting into too many sub-groups, there is no unifying purpose bringing them together. Winston Churchill captured his nation’s attention so well that moral remained positive despite the horrors closing in. He then communicated this sense of unification under one identity so vividly that an entire nation stood behind him. The mental model Churchill shared with his people could not be more positive.


Similar to Churchill, President Theodore Roosevelt had a command presence that let everyone know the room was his as he captivated and motivated Americans during a time of great progress. The best leaders are excellent story tellers. While giving speeches, Roosevelt would make a point to punch his fist into his palm, capturing the room and getting his point across that America is a nation of progress and his agenda had to be met to keep the momentum moving forward.


Great stories allow people to paint a picture of everyone working together toward the mission. They paint mental models illustrating the collective efficacy of the team. Both Sir Winston Churchill and President Theodore Roosevelt could tell a story as vividly as the ancient Greek Homer. Churchill and Roosevelt were able to communicate to their audience on such a level that their people understood these two leaders had their full support and were going to personally lead them through every step. Churchill and Roosevelt shared a sense of responsibility to their country during times of need that motivated their citizens toward greatness. These traits enhance cohesion and funnel every individual’s strengths into a single unstoppable force.


Like a convincing story, team cohesion needs a single strong theme. A grand narrative holding everything together. An idea that everyone can visualize, believe, and desire. When conceptualizing this theme, the leader must have a well-balanced vision. Picture the sail of a ship, it needs to be strong and pointing in the correct direction to get your crew to its destination. The sail may not be pointing straight ahead, rather working the angles and currents, but it will get where it needs to be because the sail, ship, wind, and ocean are all working together. The theme holding your team together needs to be like that sail, sturdy yet willing to work with its environment.


Well-Balanced Vision


Visions steer teams like winds in a sail. Sometimes like a mast on a ship, a team’s vision needs to be readjusted. Great leaders do not hold onto the past, they know when old visions no longer serve a purpose and are able to let them go. Leaders are also great at managing present values and lining those values with the current vision. The best leaders are also aware of the progressive nature of leadership and are excellent at creating and adopting new values as the environment evolves.


During perhaps the most pivotal time in American history, second possibly only to the Revolutionary War, President Abraham Lincoln had to adjust the outdated vision of a nation to match the progressing values of an evolving society. What once was deemed acceptable by the masses was becoming extinct and his influence made him the fulcrum reweighing American values and tipping the scale toward freedom for all. It is hard to adjust our personal vision, let alone one of an entire nation. To do this, President Lincoln must have a coherent view of the present overarching values of society. Like anything else, if you want to articulate a vision clearly, you must be in tune with the entire spectrum of what is occurring. Not just “both sides” but all the shades of gray between.


By developing a clear vision of where the leader plans on taking the team, it keeps them on track when events derail the original plan. In the military, this vision is known as the commander’s intent. The commander’s intent is what the leader needs accomplished for mission success. Although there is a mission statement clearly outlining how the mission should be performed in an ideal situation, if something interferes with the original plan outlining how to execute the mission, as long as the commander’s intent is accomplished the mission is a success. Knowing this, a clear vision must be in place directing the other characteristics of leadership.


Once a clear vision of where a leader intends to take their team is established, a positive team environment can develop. Just as with an individual, a team needs a positive environment to flourish. A leader’s environment is the combination of two things; situation and culture. The situation is what is going on in this instance as well as when it is occurring and its scale. If President Lincoln was faced with the same dilemma today, his situation would be different because today’s world is different.

A team’s culture is how the team identifies itself as a tribe. Culture is a direct reflection of a team’s leader, focus, and cohesion. It is how the team recognizes their situation and responds to it. Culture keeps a team aimed at its mission, or dooms it fail. Cohesion determines how strongly the team bonds and how well they work together, it is the collective who, how their strengths and weaknesses blend. When a team has a strong cohesion toward their focus, they possess a positively motivated culture. When there is no cohesion, a team needs to reassess its leader, focus, and people. Having said that, culture is a very strong force and attempting to change it too much or too soon can have devastating consequences.


Alexander the Great was a Macedonian king born in 356 B.C.E. who was larger than life. In a ten year span he expanded his empire from Egypt to India. He is considered one of history’s greatest military commanders and all of his accomplishments were before he died at 32 years old.


How was Alexander able to cultivate a culture allowing him to stretch his empire across the entire ancient world? Alexander visualized a single massive connected society. He allowed the lands his army conquered to maintain aspects of their native culture. Alexander when he conquered other countries allowed them to hold onto parts of their identity, he even adopted some of their culture into his daily wear, showing the people that he welcomed them as citizens of his kingdom, not a conquered nation. Alexander the Great let go of his past values while adopting new ones. He was able to do something truly great, manage the present values of an entire world, creating a well-balanced vision. This allowed his expanding kingdom to more easily accept other changes, easing their absorption into his empire. This move created an environment where new members of his society felt they were able to hold onto part of their culture and thus made the entire experience more positive. This is not to say conquering is a good thing, but it is amazing how we can make the situation more welcoming by positively influencing the culture. When the situation and culture are positive, the overall environment is positive.


It is important to note that positive environments are affected by events which may have happened in the past or are happening simultaneously in a different location. What, when, and scale are aspects of the situation. A famous example displaying the aspects of situation is the battle of Gettysburg. The famous Civil War battle which ultimately turned the tides of the Civil War to the Union did not randomly take place, it happened because of previous battles which led the two sides to coincidently meet at Gettysburg. It was not that single meeting that made the difference, but all of their previous encounters stretching back to before the war began which led to the climax of the conflict. The scale of the conflict as a whole influenced the location and time of the battle at Gettysburg. You must take into account the entire situation, not just the present moment.


Even if two leaders have the same vision, the chances of them operating under identical circumstances are slim to none. The environment is partial to the leader as an individual just as much as it is by the focus and cohesion of its people. If you and I wanted to write this same book, the final product would be different because of our perceptions. Our perceptions are a result of our experiences and our emotional response and subsequent feelings to those experiences.

People’s experiences act as a lens through which they see the world, the events one leader underwent getting to a moment will be different from someone else’s encounters, shaping their lens progressively different with each experience. By taking different paths to get there, their perception of the world and resulting attributes as a leader will differ.


Imagine perception as a telescope with two lenses. The first lens is objective reality, what is undoubtedly fact. For instance, the fence in my neighbor’s yard is four feet tall, you can measure it and prove this statement is true. This lens never moves. The other lens is subjective reality. This lens adjusts, bringing the picture in and out of focus. An example of subjective reality is, “Jack does not like me because I am six feet tall.” Although Jack may indeed hate me, unless he clearly states why, I am making assumptions out of perceptions, not facts. Objective reality is always the same, but how we adjust our subjective reality lens shapes our perception of how we see the world. Only after recognizing your vision and adjusting accordingly, will you be able to clearly see through your metaphorical telescope and steer your ship in the direction you want.


Empathy


Leadership more than anything else is about earning people’s trust, and trust is achieved with impeccable moral integrity. If your people trust everything you do and say, they will follow you to the end of the Earth. The best way to prove your understanding of their best interest is through genuine concern for command and self-sacrifice for your dependents. When leaders place those below and not only above them before themselves, it shows everyone that the leader cares about the team more than progressing their career.


When George Washington was an officer for the British during the French and Indian War, his focus was more on his career than the larger cause. However, as he matured and progressed in rank, he constantly put his career on the line for the right cause. He learned that his people matter more than himself, and when his people came asking him for help years later against the British, he answered.

When we are younger, we tend to assimilate the world into our lens and focus on what the world can do for us. As we mature, we start taking our knowledge and experiences into account and begin replacing our old ideas of how to lead with new ideas. President Washington became aware that his people matter more than his career. As he matured through his experiences, he became more compassionate, self-sacrificing, and placed the chain of command above himself.


Showing people that you care about their best interest is achieved by exemplifying sincerity of purpose and showing unwavering compassion toward all in general. Helping not just your people, but everyone within your influence. If a leader does not care about their people, they are only managers maneuvering individuals like cattle as tools for their self-progression. Leaders understand their strongest asset is their people and caring for their needs along with getting behind their dreams is invaluable. People will not care about or get behind anyone who does not care about them.

May I remind you, that leadership is what your people need. It is not something you do for you; it is something you do because people need you. With that said, the traits that contribute to these five overarching leadership characteristics will bring you closer to becoming a leader people hold highly. My hope as a teacher is that when students see me in the halls, they do not turn away lowering their head whispering, “that’s my professor” to their friend, rather, smile and wave to me as they pass by saying to their friend, “that’s my professor.”


Choosing an effective methodology that fits the overall leadership environment is the art behind the science and I cannot provide every methodology for every individual in one book. Nor will everyone agree with me. What you choose to do is your choice. Take this wisdom and make it yours. Discovering what works best for you is part of your vigorous life. There are countless books, journals, and clinics teaching leadership methodologies that you may appreciate more than mine. The best leadership approach for a given team depends on so many variables that only applying a single methodology is doomed to fail. We live in a diverse and dynamic world, try different ideas through trial and error and identify which combination of methodologies works best in a given environment.


For this reason, investing time in understanding every member of your team as much as possible is vital to team leadership. By taking the time to actively listen and learn what your teammates want and need in addition to what their purpose is, allows you to meet those wants and needs and prove you truly care. Caring builds trust and trust is the foundation of every relationship. It is the bull and rider in the rodeo. Neither one fully knows what is going on, but if the rider focuses on the bull, the rider may just stay on long enough to accomplish their goal. It is finding the appropriate balance between chaos and order, living like the ambiguous gods of fire.


If a leader invest time learning about her people’s interest, personalities, desires, and the team’s overall culture, she will earn each individual’s trust and the team’s respect. When this happens, her people will follow her under any conditions. Remember Shackleton’s Antarctic journey into chaos? His crew followed him through the rabbit hole and into a real-life Wonderland, and he led every one of them out the other side. His empathy for his team is what allowed them to survive their odyssey. Teammates of empathetic leaders will follow them through any conditions.


Always improve,


Chris

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© 2020 by Christopher Johnson, Ed.D. No information on this site is to be taken as medical advice. Newton, Ma 02460