Now that 2018 is just around the corner, it may be time to ask that one glaring question to move you forward: What is your single biggest leadership challenge right now? 

This is not a hard exercise, but it does take some level of accountability and self-reflection. It should be obvious enough because it may be that one thing that has plagued you most of the year. A communication issue? Hiring challenge? Team not performing to expectations?

I've interviewed and studied some of the most effective leaders and have discovered some key cornerstones in the ways that they lead their people. Rather than wait till next year (seriously, do you really need a New Year's resolution?), why not start improving now? 

Here are three traits that define the best leaders, regardless of age, personality, or industry. 

1. They operate on integrity, no matter what.

Employees are not stupid. They're perceptive and have a keen sense of their managers' integrity, based on watching their behaviors. At the end of the day, employees want to know:

  • Can I trust my boss to do the right thing?
  • Will my boss be straight with me and speak his or her truth?
  • Does my boss own his  mistakes?
  • Does my boss give credit where credit is due?
  • Does my boss care about our team members as people as opposed to assets? 

If you want to lead others effectively, you have to gain their trust, and you can't have their trust without integrity.

Integrity is a choice we make, and must keep making over and over again. If this strikes your curiosity, refer to this piece I wrote for five very important reasons why integrity is so vital for success.

2. They respect their followers, especially women.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Walt Disney Studios chairman and Dreamworks Animation CEO who is worth an estimated $800 million, told New York Times Corner Office columnist Adam Bryant in 2009: "By definition if there's leadership, it means there are followers, and you're only as good as the followers. I believe the quality of the followers is in direct correlation to the respect you hold them in. It's not how much they respect you that is most important. It's actually how much you respect them. It's everything."

Yes it is, and especially true in your treatment of women, if you're a male leader. Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood film producer accused of countless sexual assaults in the scandal for the ages, has been a friend of Katzenberg's for 30 years. It was especially shocking to Katzenberg when he received an email from Weinstein asking that he (and other top Hollywood executives) publicly vouch for him to save his company and career.

Katzenberg's response? What you would expect from an upstanding leader holding to operating on principle #1, irrespective of friendship ties: "You have done terrible things to a number of women over a period of years," Katzenberg wrote in an email shared by The Hollywood Reporter. "I cannot in any way say this is OK with me...It's not at all, and I am sickened by it, angry with you and incredibly disappointed in you."

3. They reinforce the values of the organization over and over.

If your team is suffering from an identity issue and you can't define your company culture, your starting point is to establish values that are reinforced as part of the hiring, firing, promoting and recognition process. The litmus test is bringing those values down from written statements on the walls of conference rooms to shared day-to-day interactions in the trenches between fellow employees, and employees and their customers.

Tae Hea Nahm, managing director of Storm Ventures, a venture capital firm, expands further on another Adam Bryant interview: "You can have your stated culture, but the real culture is defined by compensation, promotions and terminations. Basically, people seeing who succeeds and fails in the company defines culture. The people who succeed become role models for what's valued in the organization, and that defines culture."

Parting thoughts

Hopefully the examples above of thoughtful leadership will trigger some kind of action to raise your own leadership bar. Usually, the first obstacle to overcome is one of mindset: Challenging a false belief system that dictates that leadership is about attaining power, control, or personal gain. On the contrary, and thankfully so, when leaders arrive at the truthful understanding that leadership is really about serving the needs of others and impacting peoples' lives, fakers leave and only the real McCoys remain.