• Tue. Apr 16th, 2024

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3 essential leadership traits that cannot be faked


By John McLachlan, co-author of ‘Real Leaders: a practical guide to the essential qualities of effective leadership’

What are the essential traits of a great leader? That’s the million-dollar question.

To boil the answer down to a single attribute, it would be trustworthiness. If your team and organisation as a whole trust you and your leadership, they will follow you. Being trustworthy also allows people to feel safe. From a place of safety, people can better express themselves, allow their creativity to flow, have some fun and even challenge you when they need to. Overall, this creates a great workplace culture where employees feel supported, happy, heard, and inspired.

But how do we develop trust? We can’t simply expect employees and colleagues to trust us implicitly from the outset. We need to earn and develop trust over time.

To earn and develop trust we need three essential traits: honesty, consistency, and integrity.

Additionally, these traits must, in themselves, be honest. You cannot fake them. Not for long, anyway. Keeping up a facade of honesty, consistency and integrity takes effort and work, and you need to protect the facade by being defensive.

What’s more, people will see through it. Perhaps they won’t consciously know that you’re lying or presenting a facade, but they will feel it intuitively. As a result, they won’t trust you, even though you appear to be embodying the three essential leadership traits.

Can the three essential leadership traits be learnt?

Attempting to ‘learn’ how to embody these three essential leadership traits is akin to faking it. You can, however, learn how to tap into these attributes within yourself.

By developing your self-awareness and understanding yourself better, you can discover your values and become more emotionally regulated. Other people and their ideas stop becoming a threat and start becoming useful challenges.

It all starts with integrity.

Integrity: Being the real you

There is no one style of leadership, no one personality mould of a good leader. What a great leader is to one person isn’t to another. Rather than trying to be a good leader by doing what you think you should do, focus on being who you actually are.

Some people think they need to be tough or inspirational, for example, but if that’s not who you are, it will come across as phoney and will fail.

By coming to know and understand yourself better, you will know your strengths, natural inclinations and principles. The next step is to clearly communicate these principles to your team and organisation.

Perhaps you are a no-nonsense leader. That’s fine. Many organisations thrive under the leadership of a straightforward authoritarian figure. Prefer a softer approach where everyone’s voice is heard? Great! Lots of organisations benefit from taking in a wide perspective and it can often enhance creativity.

Pretending to listen, however, is just going to frustrate people since they know you’re going to do what you want anyway. Likewise, trying to be authoritarian when you are a natural listener will likely fill you with self-doubt and make others doubt you too.

Integrity also helps you find your tribe and align your team. If people know what they’re getting from you, they can make the decision to work with you or not. Similarly, if, after doing some self-exploration, you discover that your principles are misaligned with your organisation, you can make the decision to stay and change things or leave and find a better fit elsewhere.

This brings us to the next essential trait…

Honesty: Clearly communicating what you mean

Once you know and understand your beliefs and values, be honest about them. That means communicating them clearly and consistently.

Blagging your way through a meeting by pretending to have all the answers isn’t honest. Instead, it is far better and more honest to simply say “I’m not sure” and go and find out. People will respect you more, not less.

Honestly is not, however, about always saying whatever is on your mind. That can often be rude and confusing. Honesty is about saying what you believe and sticking to it.

The most common hindrance to honest communication is management or sales speak. Management speak is often used to make things seem more impressive than they actually are, often as a way to cover up for a lack of confidence.

Rather than ‘coming up with some ideas’ people suggest ‘blue sky ideation’, for example. Or try ‘sharing an idea around’ rather than “running it up the flagpole”.

If you can eliminate management speak from your vocabulary, you will lay the foundations for a robust approach to mission-critical interactions, allowing you to sharpen the point of this pencil and all sing from the same hymn sheet.

Or, in human speak, prepare a useful approach to communication that provides clarity and allows everyone to work in unison. Doing this consistently will make you be seen as more honest, clear and confident.

Consistency: Providing safety through predictability

By clearly and honestly communicating your principles, your integrity will shine through, and you’ll be well on your way to building trust with your team. But once is not enough. You need to continue communicating consistently for trust to keep building.

Consistency is about making things predictable for others. They can count on you to turn up and leave at around the same time each day, react in fairly predictable ways, and stick to your beliefs and principles.

When things are more predictable, they’re safer. Colleagues won’t need to second guess you, your reactions, or themselves. They’ll simply know that things are fine because you’re a person of principle. They’ll also be better able to represent you and your perspective when you’re not there because they have a consistent idea of how you’ll perceive and react to things.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. It’s hard (if not impossible) to do the same things and react in the same ways every single day. You might have stressors in your personal life that are impacting you at work or you might have work stress, such as a tight deadline, that you need to manage.

If things get difficult and it’s hard to maintain consistency, fall back on honesty and integrity. If you’re someone who usually likes to hear everyone’s perspectives. but time-constraints won’t allow it, simply name it and be clear.

“I know we usually try to hear from everyone but today I need to make a quick decision” is much more honest than rushing everyone to have their say before ignoring them in favour of your own decision. There is no ambiguity or interpretation required – you simply told them what was happening and why.

By bringing together these three essential leadership traits, you will come to be understood as someone who is trustworthy and reliable. Not everyone will like or agree with you but, if they trust you to consistently stick to your principles and be honest, they will be much more likely to follow you. If not, that’s okay too. They aren’t the right fit for your team and can make the decision to move to another team or another organisation.

Good leaders, after all, aren’t people pleasers, they’re people that others want to follow. So, dig deep, be brave, be honest and you’ll make a great leader.


John McLachlan is co-author of ‘Real Leaders: a practical guide to the essential qualities of effective leadership’ and co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy, a leadership development and organisational design consultancy working with business leaders to help align teams, support innovation, build sustainable organisations and develop exceptional people who are better able to achieve results – giving leaders more time to do what they do best. www.monkeypuzzletraining.co.uk







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