Once upon a time, books like How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People were supposed to have been the final words on the subtle art of leadership.
But today, in an era of disruption, Zuckerberg-style power plays, and glass-ceiling-smashing, the inadequacy of a one-size fits all approach to leadership has been clearly demonstrated. Highly effective people, it turns out, have all sorts of habits.
Is there still some value in trying to draw out the traits common to good leaders? Some people certainly think so. James R Bailey, a professor at George Washington University’s School of Business, proposed in the Harvard Business Review that one recipe for “vital” leadership consists of providing both direction and force. Too little force and a leader becomes merely “amiable”, too little direction and she becomes “maleficent.”
It’s an interesting model, but it’s a little abstract to be directly relevant. Below, we’ve pulled together an array of more specific traits shared by successful leaders and entrepreneurs.
A person who exhibits all of these at all times would be rare indeed, but together they offer a strong model for business owners to emulate.
1. Have thick skin, will use it
It comes as no surprise that most successful business owners don’t really care what others think of them and treat failure as a slap on the wrist.
But thick skin doesn’t just mean the resilience to overcome setbacks and lean times. Just as important is an overriding intellectual humility, that is, an understanding that our ideas aren’t any better or worse than others just because they happen to be ours.
Intellectually humble people avoid tying their self-worth to the success or popularity of ideas. Instead, they see their decisions and perceptions as one among many. This helps them make informed, dispassionate decisions for the right reasons. They lead with their brains, not their egos.
2. Comfortable with taking risks
Successful business owners also tend to demonstrate a comfort with risk. That’s not the same as thrill-seeking, and it doesn’t mean taking risks arbitrarily or gambling. Rather, successful risk-takers are comfortable with risk because they’ve taken the time to study and understand it. They know that they have to put something on the line in order to succeed, but they do so confidently because they’ve taken stock of their position, limited their exposure, and weighed the upshot.
3. Intellectual curiosity is a way of life
Curiosity doesn’t just mean wanting to know more about a subject. It involves a particular set of skills, and foremost among them is the ability to listen.
Curious leaders are aware of the limitations that their position puts on their perspective, and are excited to hear insights from all levels of their organization. They don’t try to mute or blot out criticism, or ignore information because it doesn’t come through the usual channels. They promote a culture where employees pay attention, ask questions, and follow up.
4. Resilience is required
Setbacks are unavoidable in the life of a small business. What sets successful leaders apart is how they meet and react to these challenges. Calmness is key—these leaders do not panic at the first sign of crisis. They keep in mind that overreaction can often be more damaging than the original problem.
If the problem develops into a full-blown defeat, they don’t dwell on it (because they have thick skin). But they also don’t ignore it (because they’re intellectually curious). As soon as they’re back in the saddle, they investigate what went wrong and how, and integrate what they’ve learned into their business plan going forward.
5. Openness leads to opportunities
Business may be cutthroat, but selfishness is not a quality that leads to success. Selfishness isn’t limited to profits. It’s an overriding attitude that can slow down and even paralyze an organization.
A good leader doesn’t hoard information or responsibility—she knows that her job is to make sure information and responsibility flow smoothly throughout her company. Too often, leaders become convinced that they’re the only ones who can do something correctly. They become choke points for information and slow everything down.
Leaders who are comfortable delegating responsibility and authority have an obvious advantage.
6. Charisma is a game changer
It goes without saying that there’s no way to succeed in business without being passionate about what you do. But passion only gets you so far.
What sets successful leaders apart is how infectious their passion is. They excel at getting other people—employees, customers, and investors—to share their enthusiasm. When they sell their product or service, they’re also selling the idea behind it, and their pitches are designed not just to make sales, but to make converts.
7. Vision will show you the way
A leader’s vision goes beyond a simple insight or destination. Having a strong vision means communicating the values and priorities of your company in all that you do, and incorporating those values into company culture.
Strong business leaders have a knack both for thinking big and encouraging those around them to do the same. In a company with a clear vision, those values and priorities become self-reinforcing and self-replicating, which makes day-to-day management easier and frees up the leadership to focus on other strategic concerns.
You don’t need all of these traits to succeed
If this seems like a hard list to live up to, that’s because it is. There probably isn’t a single successful business owner or leader in the world who exhibits all these qualities.
But the good news is that you don’t need to have all seven of these traits. If you have just a handful of them, you can take your business farther than you can possibly imagine. So work on what you’re already good at, and be cognizant of what you need to improve. Slow and steady wins the race.