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OWNER'S MANUAL

5 Underrated Traits of Great Leaders

Those bosses who inspire, motivate, and make employees feel better about themselves? Here's what they do differently from everyone else.
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Let's get this out of the way. By "leaders," I'm not referring to the guy who doubles the stock price in six months or the gal who coerces local officials into approving incredibly generous tax breaks and incentives.

Those are examples of leadership--but those are examples of leadership that tends to be situational and often short-lived.

Instead, I'm referring to people who inspire, motivate, make others feel better about themselves than even they think they have a right to feel--the kind of people others follow not because they have to but because they want to.

They have a knack for making people feel as if they aren't actually following: Wherever they're headed, everyone is going there together.

Here's how great leaders do it:

1. They quietly pick up trash.

I've taken tons of plant tours with owners and CEOs. Manufacturing is messy, even in the cleanest factories, so invariably we walk by trash on the floor. Say there's a piece of paper on the floor; when that happens, there are two types of people:

There's the guy who spots it, directs his laserlike focus on the problem, struts over, snatches up the piece of paper, crumples it like a beer can he's just chugged, and strides to a trash can to slam it home. He's thinking about trash as a way to make a statement.

Then there's the guy who without breaking stride veers over, picks up the paper, quietly folds it up, sticks it in his pocket, and keeps talking.

He's not thinking at all about trash--he just picks it up.

In either case, his employees notice what he does. When you're in charge, everyone watches what you do. The difference lies in how you do it--and what that says about you.

Great leaders do what they do simply because it's important to them. They care about go, not show.

Show lasts minutes. Go lasts a lifetime.

2. They don't ask poets to diagram sentences.

Every employee has strengths. Every employee has weaknesses. Smart leaders know that employees allowed to play predominantly to their strengths don't really feel as if they're working; they feel happy, fulfilled, and free to be exactly who they are.

Employees required to mostly perform tasks they don't do well--even with the carrot of "career development" dangling just out of reach--feel uncomfortable and awkward. Everything they do feels like work.

And no one likes work.

Great leaders develop their employees, but they do it in ways that allow their employees to still feel they're successful, at least most of the time.

3. They go back for their own notes.

I was sitting in a conference room waiting for a meeting to start in five minutes. The founder walked in, sat down, glanced in his briefcase, and said, "Shoot. I forgot my notes." He stood and headed for the door.

Instantly five people jumped up. "I'll run and get them," each said, almost in unison.

Without breaking stride he said, "Thanks, but I'm the one who left them behind."

Yes, as the owner you're more important. Yes, your time is more valuable. Yes, having someone else run back to get your notes is a more efficient use of company time.

But if you want to build a culture of accountability, go back and get your own notes.

Accountability starts with you--and it starts with the smallest of things.

4. They shy away from spotlights.

A friend has been pitched by almost every major business magazine. They want to do stories. They want to do profiles. They want to know his secrets of success.

He always turns them down.

"I'm boring," he says. "Plus, I'd hate for people to find out I don't really have any secrets for success."

He truly believes--unlike many people who pay lip service to humility--that his success is based on hiring great employees and turning them loose to do what they do best.

His employees know that. And they respect him for it.

5. They jump on grenades.

A website update crashed because programmers didn't perform key tests. Thousands of customers are without service and pissed.

The owner says, "I'm sorry. I didn't make sure the update was ready to go. That's my mistake, and I apologize. I will do everything possible to fix the problem as soon as possible, and I will keep you updated when you can expect service to be restored."

When something goes wrong, great leaders don't use the royal "we." They take full responsibility.

Publicly, they say, "I." Then they use "I" one more time when they say to their employees, "I really need your help."

That creates a "we" with real meaning.

Last updated: Sep 6, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

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



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