February is the time of year for valentines, the last snows of the year (hopefully)and those fleeting, inconsistent signs of spring. It’s also the time when we celebrate President’s Day and take a look back on our nation’s leadership.
Regardless of your party affiliation or political bent, it’s an interesting exercise to think about the diverse group of individuals who have served as Commander-in-Chief, and the leadership qualities they brought to the Oval Office.
In your own career, how do you lead and/or view leadership in others? I’ve found that even with the plethora of differing opinions on leadership, management and success, true leaders exhibit the following 5 common characteristics. Perhaps you’ll find these helpful when it comes to your own career management.
- Natural Curiosity. Julie Winkle Giulioni, a noted author, consultant and speaker on leadership, sales, and customer service, penned a blog calling curiosity “the new black,” a skill that’s always in style, goes with anything and makes a bold statement wherever it goes. I couldn’t agree more. Curiosity may not be the leadership trait that first comes to mind, but I think it’s an important one. Curiosity is the catalyst that propels a leader to look for new ideas and consider different opinions, and the driver of positive change and innovation throughout an organization. To me, curiosity exercised wisely is a game-changer. Who gets our vote for “Most Curious” president? Thomas Jefferson. He opened the West to exploration through the Lewis and Clark expedition, served as principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was an philosopher, scientist, and intellectual who founded the University of Virginia.
- A vision for something better. Great leaders are not satisfied with the status quo. They understand that standing still leads to stagnation – the killer of innovation and creativity. True leaders are always looking for the better way. They have a vision for where they want to be and where they want to take their organizations. Who gets our vote for “Most Visionary” president? Woodrow Wilson. Wilson signed into being the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission. Wilson was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at bringing about world peace and trying to establish a League of Nations.
- Clarity of communication. Hand-in-hand with a vision is the ability to communicate that vision. A leader’s organizational vision needs to be shared to take root, and people need to understand the vision and what each must do to make that vision a reality. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a growing appreciation among leaders of the importance of communicating clearly, consistently and frequently. Good leaders understand that they have to bring people along if they want their vision to become real. Who gets our vote for “Best Communicator?” Ronald Reagan. Long ago dubbed the “Great Communicator,” Reagan had an ability to relate to people and communicate to them in anecdotes and ways that were easy to understand. According to author Lou Cannon, Reagan kept his message simple and on mainstream American concerns. He also had a good grasp of his audience reactions to his speeches and constantly worked to make sure he related to those listening to him.
- Humility. Having lived through the age of the “celebrity CEO,” it’s refreshing to work with leaders who are humble. The world recently lost revered basketball coach Dean Smith for whom an important tenet of leadership and winning was staying humble. True leaders don’t need to take themselves too seriously or toot their own horns. Generally their results speak for themselves. Who gets our vote for “Most Humble” president? George Washington. Washington is widely said to have viewed himself as a public servant versus a ruler. He knew that his actions would set a precedent for future presidents and his lack of a desire to be seen as a ‘monarch’ was an extremely important part of creating a citizen President . Washington preferred the title “Mr. President,” instead of more grandiose names that had been suggested. He delegated authority, consulted regularly with his cabinet – listening to their advice before making a decision and, after two terms as president, chose to step aside.
- Authenticity. Whether you call it “real,” down-to-earth” or “genuine,” the importance of authenticity in leaders can’t be overstated. Authentic leaders are those who earn the respect of their colleagues and teams for their character and consistently “doing the right thing.” We’ve all probably worked for leaders who were less than genuine and consequently know the cynicism and lack of trust disingenuous or self-serving behavior breeds. Authentic leaders are self-aware and stay true to themselves and their character, and they understand the value of those who work with and for them. Who gets our vote for “Most Authentic” president? Jimmy Carter. History has viewed him with mixed results, however, former President Carter consistently maintained a commitment to championing human rights, both during his term and afterwards. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 and continues his efforts today through the Carter Center, a non-partisan organization with the charter of resolving conflict, promoting democracy, protecting human rights, and preventing disease and other afflictions. He even personally works with Habitat for Humanity, building and/or renovating houses for the needy.
Don’t take our “votes” as any type of political statement or persuasion. On the contrary, viewing our presidents through the lens of leadership traits provides an interesting, apolitical perspective. From our own perspective as leaders and/or professionals, it’s also a good filter for checking and re-checking your own style.