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5 Traits of True Leaders

What we look for in Presidential candidates says a lot about what we look for in other leaders--such as entrepreneurs

Every time a presidential election rolls around, the conversation turns to leadership. We ask ourselves, and each other, what we expect from our elected leaders. What fundamental traits do those leaders need to have?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried to make some sense of what we expect from leaders in the political arena. I’ve followed the press, read the critiques and counter-critiques, and like you, discussed the upcoming election with too many people.

These admittedly non-scientific discussions are in remarkable congruence with the core leadership traits valued in academic research and real-world practice. It’s not rocket science. Whether you’re chatting on a barstool, conducting academic research, or leading a company, there are five core traits that we look for in leaders:

Clarity We want leaders to articulate their message clearly. They need to tell us what they’re about, where they’re going, and how they’re going to get there. And it needs to be explicit. Ambiguity in language or intention tends to frustrate people, as do amorphous promises. Leaders should avoid language that is so detailed and pedantic that it cannot be understood, as well as language that is so fluffy that it says nothing.

Consistency The word “flip-flop” emerged a number of years ago as a critique of leaders who couldn’t choose a position and stick to it. It’s not a compliment. Consistency is essential. We want leaders to follow a clear path so that at each point, we can understand exactly where they are and where they-;and we--are going. Consistency allows others to mark progress made toward fulfilling campaign promises.  If it’s time for a new direction, consistency guarantees that new actions will acknowledge the context of prior ones. Consistency cuts down on impulsive surprises.

Follow-through Once the campaign is over, we want to see promises and policies come to fruition. We want leaders to stay on top of the game and manage for results.  We want something valuable to get done. We don’t want to see our leaders take their eyes off the ball after they’ve been elected.

Authenticity Authenticity is a diffuse concept, but at its core is a sense of believability and empathy. We want a sense of a personal relationship with the leader. We want to know that the leader is who they say they are, and we want to believe they have empathy for our situation. We want to think they have the capacity to put themselves in our shoes. We want them to see the world not only as they see it, but also as we see it.

Passion  Passion is leadership’s gift wrap. Passion attracts us to the leader in the first place. Passion is the dramatic presentation declaring that the mission is truly important.  Passion shows that the leader is committed not only functionally, but emotionally.  Passion is the ability to convey a leader’s total ownership of the mission.  Passion is a sense of calling that projects energy and motivation in its own right.

Think about these not only as core leadership traits for those we elect, but for yourself as well. In leading your own organization, do you lead with clarity, consistency, follow-through, authenticity, and passion?

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IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Oct 4, 2012

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Co-founder, Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG)

Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of the Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), an organization which specializes in leadership development programs with an emphasis on specific behavioral-skills such as leading for change and innovation, political skills to move agendas, coaching skills to enhance individuals and teams, and leading through negotiations. He is also the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation will be published by BLG in March 2015.

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



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