I’ve been in and around executive-level leadership for nearly thirty years. This includes my own experience as a senior leader as well as having the privilege of knowing college presidents, founders of technology start-ups, and CEO’s of companies traded on the NYSE. Many of the best leaders I’ve ever known are far from famous. They include school teachers, volunteer board members, and retired nurses.
But as I’ve reflected on what made each of them effective leaders, I’ve noticed they all share a few common characteristics. For simplicity, I’m referring to them as the 4C’s of effective senior leadership. These aren’t strategies. They are characteristics — common values and actions that first shape the person, then their leadership.
What do these effective senior leaders have in common? They are …
Credible. We might buy a used car from a shifty salesman (and need to shower afterwards), but we wouldn’t follow them into a life or death situation. Likewise, when my daughters were four or five years old, I wouldn’t turn to them for financial advice. While their intentions might be good, their knowledge of investments might be a little lacking.
Credibility is the combination of several factors: honesty, wisdom, and trustworthiness. We need our leaders to be honest because we need to trust the integrity of their decisions. We also need leaders who have earned their credibility by learning from their mistakes.
Leaders who lack credibility may leverage other incentives such as compensation, but that will eventually wear thin. Even worse, leaders who lack credibility will lose the followers who have credibility and begin to attract followers who also live on the shady-side of ethics.
Composed. Do effective senior leaders have fewer challenges than their less effective counterparts? Not at all. In fact, the higher you climb, the greater the risks. It’s not that effective leaders have faced few challenges; instead, it’s that they have faced them differently. And one of those ways is with composure.
I once worked with a junior leader who lost his cool and said things that damaged his relationship with colleagues. As we debriefed at a later time, he admitted his emotions had gotten the best of him. In a gentle way, I reminded him that senior leaders will sit in far more tense-situations than what we had been in. To become more effective requires a greater level of composure.
As a senior leader, I’m not allowed the luxury of running around like a chicken with its head cutoff every time a crisis hits. Internally, my stomach might be churning. Rather than ignore my feelings, I must be able to communicate them in a way that offers reassurance.
Clear. During high school and college, I can remember driving the backroads of Central Illinois during times of heavy fog. At times, you might only be able to see 10-20 feet in front of your car. Even a teenager like myself (who normally liked to drive fast) knew better than to increase my speed.
Effective leaders value clarity because the opposite of clarity is a debilitating lack of visibility. The fog slows you down. This is true in marriage relationships, work environments, and life in general. When we are operating with poor visibility, we become cautious. Sometimes we have to circle back because we missed our turn. Unfortunately, we might even wind up in a fender-bender.
Effective senior leaders know that one of the best gifts they can give their team is clarity. Not a white-washed version of reality. Not a passive-aggressive way of handling conflict. They recognize that even when the information might be difficult to hear, it still needs to be said.
Concise. Time is our most precious currency. More so than investments, gadgets, or even bitcoin. When a leader speaks or acts concisely, it shows respect for the value of other people’s time. It also reflects their clarity of thought and further enhances their credibility.
Years ago, I worked alongside a senior leader who would go into a self-induced filibuster whenever he was pressed for unflattering information or faced questions about an unpopular decision. His tendency to filibuster rather than speak concisely (and clearly) only eroded the trust of his teammates.
When a leader speaks or acts in a concise manner, it conveys confidence.
Are there other C’s you would add to the list of common characteristics of effective senior leaders?
Experience and Background
- 25+ years of senior leadership experience
- masters in management and leadership
- presenter at the WFX National Conference
- former president, Church Planters of the Rockies
- helped start 2 for-profit tech companies
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