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5 Non-negotiable Leadership Competencies

What makes a great leader? One thing is certain: Leadership doesn’t depend on your title; it stems from how you act.

An effective leader doesn’t have to be outgoing or have the loudest voice in the room. People with quiet, low-key personalities can also be outstanding leaders. True leadership is not about self-promotion. It is the ability to get others to follow what you are advocating: To trust you; to respect you; to feel that your vision and strategies are in everyone's best interests—not just your own.

After leading various organizations ranging in size from several people to several thousand, I've identified 5 fundamental characteristics that every leader needs in order to be effective, whether at the helm of a small business or a multinational organization.

1. Integrity. Make sure you do the right thing for all the right reasons. In any leadership role you will be called on to make difficult decisions. If you conduct yourself with integrity, your people will respect you. Some may disagree with your decisions, but if they know you act with integrity, they will accept your direction. As one of my mentors told me: “People can spot someone who takes moral shortcuts.” Always remember that a reputation lost is a career destroyed.

2. Courage. All leaders must have courage: The courage to ask why. To challenge the status quo. To go out on a limb. To do what others are afraid to say and do. Many years ago when a bottle of Tylenol was found to have been tampered with, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, the company that produced Tylenol, immediately directed that all bottles of the pain reliever be removed from every shelf in every store. He vowed that Tylenol wouldn't be back on store shelves until the company knew that every bottle was safe. It was a bold move with a large negative impact on the company’s short-term sales, but when Tylenol did return to store shelves, so did their customers.

3. Lead by Example. Don't ask anyone to do something you wouldn't do yourself. If you ask others to stay late, you should too. When I ran a new business unit, our initial office space couldn't accommodate everyone having an office. So I sat down with my senior team and together we defined objective criteria for an office. I didn't qualify, and much to everyone's surprise, I sat in a cubicle alongside the other employees. It made a statement: I play by the same rules as everyone else. Any rule or policy we adopt, I abide by as well. You can't act one way and expect others to act differently. As a leader, you have to be a role model.

4. Be a Great Listener. You can't understand what's going on around you unless you listen to others. Listening is how you learn. It’s how you gain perspective. Listening is how you understand what's important and what's not. It’s how you discover challenges and opportunities. A good listener sends a strong message to others: “I respect and care what you say.” Throughout my career, the best ideas always came from people closest to the core operations we were looking to improve. You can't find those answers unless you ask a lot of questions from the key players and then listen carefully to the answers.

5. Be a Great Communicator. Leaders master both the form and substance of communication. Quite simply, you can't lead unless people understand your message. Language, tone, facial, and non-verbal expressions all send messages that impact what you are saying. (This also applies to listening. If you look away or check your phone while someone is talking they know you are not listening.).

Here are a few communication tips:
  • Keep your message clear and concise. We live in a short-attention-span world. Spend time thinking about what you want to say and how best to communicate it quickly. I like to pretend I only have 30 to 60 seconds to talk. That forces me to get right to the point.
  • Use examples. They reinforce your points by tying them to real life instead of dry theories.
  • Think like a teacher when speaking. Great communicators understand that when they are speaking to someone or to a group, that they are in effect teaching others what they want them to understand.

Mastering the substance of communication means getting people to react to what you are saying in the way you want. To succeed, you must motivate, educate, and inspire others. Your words should motivate your listener to want to react in the way you desire. You must educate them as to why you are asking them to do something. People will follow direction, but only grudgingly, if they don't understand why they are being asked to do something. To inspire means the ability to touch someone in a positive way with your words. This enables them to do something they otherwise might not have done. Inspirational leaders provide the fuel to allow others to achieve success.

In today's less hierarchical work environment, there are leadership opportunities for people at every level. Those who master the personal leadership competencies that I've described will enrich their work experience and create unlimited opportunities for themselves and others. Enjoy the journey.

To learn more about achieving leadership success, consider these AMA seminars: 
Leading with Emotional Intelligence 

The Voice of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire, Influence and Achieve Results

About the Author(s)

Brian S. Cohen is president and CEO of Strategic Growth Advisors LLC (SGA), an independent boutique advisory firm in Los Angeles as well as an operating partner at Altamont Capital Partners, a private equity firm based in Palo Alto, Calif. Contact him at bcohen@cohenadvisory.com. LinkedIn: http://tinyurl.com/mmfbvsr