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What Science Says About Successful Bosses

A new scientific study of managers reveals the character traits that lead to success.
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Over the past year, I've been writing a book about the future of sales and marketing with Howard Stevens, chairman of the leadership assessment firm Chally. As part of a decades-long research project, Chally has gathered extensive personality data about 150,000 salespeople, including 9,000 sales managers.

Last week, I had a conversation with Howard where he described the results of a statistical analysis on the cumulative data on sales managers. While the data set is specific to sales, I believe that personality traits that emerged apply to any management position.

According to the success vs. failure statistics that Howard shared with me, successful bosses tend to be:

1. Humble Rather Than Arrogant

Failed bosses defined their role as some form of telling people what to do. Employees perceived them as obnoxious know-it-alls who wouldn't let them do their job.

Successful bosses put themselves and their own egos into the background. They focused on coaching employees to perform to their highest potential.

2. Flexible Rather Than Rigid

Failed bosses couldn't tolerate change themselves and so found it nearly impossible to get their employees to embrace necessary change.

Successful bosses knew that adapting to new conditions requires personal flexibility in order to inspire similar flexibility throughout the rest of the team.

3. Straightforward Rather Than Evasive

Failed bosses tried to manipulate employees using half-truths that left false impressions.  When employees realized they've been fooled, they felt resentful and disloyal.

Successful bosses gave employees the information they need to know to make the best decisions, even if that information is difficult or sensitive.

4. Forward Thinking Rather Than Improvisational

Failed bosses often attempted to run their organizations ad-hoc, constantly shifting gears and directions, creating a more-or-less constant state of confusion.

Successful bosses had a plan and made sure that everyone understood it. They adapted that plan to changing conditions but did so carefully and intentionally.

5. Precise Rather Than Vague

Failed bosses created mushy goals that employees found difficult to map into actual activity. As a result, the wrong things got done and the right things didn't.

Successful bosses let employees know exactly what was expected of them, in sufficient detail so that there was no ambiguity about goals.

6. Patient Rather Than Ill-Tempered

Failed bosses blew up and threw fits when problems cropped up. Their employees became more afraid of doing things wrong than eager to do things right.

Successful bosses confronted problems by listening, considering options, deciding on the best approach, and then communicating what needed to be done.

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IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Oct 4, 2012

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James was recently named a "Top 40 Social Selling Marketing Master" by Forbes, and his blog has won awards from the Society of American Business Editors and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. His writing has appeared in publications as diverse as Wired, Brandweek, and Men's Health, and he is the author of numerous books, including The Tao of Programming, Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite, and, most recently, Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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