Jul 1, 2011

- Two Personality Traits Every Leader Needs

1. Intellectual curiosity: People associate leadership with bold action, but most bad decisions come down to one simple fact: you’ve made a bold decision before having all the facts.  Curiosity includes getting to the bottom of what’s going on, why it happened, and what the underlying causes are.
Curiosity implies a desire to learn.  As Warren Bennis says, great leaders are “conceptualists.”  They dig into big ideas and see how they apply.  Without curiosity, leaders make decisions based on politics and expediency.
Curiosity includes a love of listening.  My colleague Mark Goulston, a leadership expert and psychiatrist, wrote a book that is perfectly titled: Just Listen.  (The book is available from the American Management Association as a free ebook.)  Many of the worst leaders I know don’t listen, don’t like to listen, and hide in their offices talking to a small circle of people who think like they do.
Companies that lack curiosity don’t see the need for change coming until it’s too late.  Circuit City, Sears, and Blockbuster come to mind.
2. Courage to stand by values: The–say it with me–”Weiner affair” shows us what happens when people act on impulses rather than values.  Courage goes far beyond avoiding moral lapses.  It means finding a set of principles that the leader will use to make decisions, so that no one doubts where they stand.  Courage is what gives leaders the intestinal fortitude to make decisions that will draw fire from nay-sayers.
Companies that lack courage strike people as spineless or lacking a conscience.  The list includes not only Enron and WorldCom, but also Whirlpool, Kmart, and Nokia.   In all three cases the companies failed to take bold actions that could have redefined their markets.
Leaders lack the resolve to stop doing something unethical, or don’t venture out in bold new directions.
Reading Warren Bennis reminded me that change has no constituents.  A courageous decision will result in critics shooting spit wads of cynicism and sarcasm.  The leader must demonstrate curiosity to fully understand the situation, and then courage to make the best decisions for everyone.  If the leader caves into criticisms prematurely, then the nay-sayers start running the place.  Vision is discarded and mediocrity is the future.
Curiosity and courage have a tension between them, and neither is an end in itself.  Too much curiosity and the leader is weak and indecisive.  Too much courage and the leader is brazen and thoughtless.

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