Career Coach: Key ingredients to effective leadership

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, June 14, 2010

In this part of the country, the topic of leadership often comes up in conversation. From the White House to Congress to the defense industry, nonprofits and the health field, people love to offer their views on "what it takes to be an effective leader." But what does the research really say about the behaviors necessary to be an effective leader and, more importantly, what difference does it really make?

There is a lot of leadership research that we can look to, and yes, it does make a difference -- to employees, their companies, consumers and the general public. Just ask anyone who has ever worked for a great boss and then had to work for a bad boss. Does it make a difference in their motivation? You bet! Research indicates that a person's immediate manager is one of the biggest factors for retention.

So what kind of behaviors do you need to demonstrate to be seen as a really effective leader? It depends on what you really want from your employees. Most of us would say we really want employees who are committed, show initiative, perform beyond expectations and buy into our mission and vision. We want to know that if we left town for a few weeks, everything would still get done and get done well. If you can't say that, read on to find out how to nurture a culture in which individuals are inspired to lead themselves to perform at high levels.

First, you need to be charismatic. Show passion for what you do. Project self-confidence and optimism and communicate a sense of mission to your staff. Articulate a strong vision that captures the imagination of your employees. If you are seen as charismatic, you can capture the attention of those around you. If you are naturally a quiet person or not particularly great at communicating, you will have to work harder to get people's attention. The good news is that you can improve in this area by taking communication or confidence courses such as Dale Carnegie or Toastmasters.

Perhaps even more important than charisma is being seen as inspirational. This means that you model values and self-leadership and motivate others by the message you share with them. Even if you aren't very extroverted, you can still share a powerful message that appeals to their hearts or challenges them to step up to the risks of change. With your message to others, you build their personal self-confidence and empower them to act.

Effective leaders intellectually stimulate their staff. This means they encourage employees to bring new perspectives and innovative thinking to solving problems. This can be done by encouraging unconventional ideas, delegating responsibilities, involving employees in decision-making, providing timely and useful feedback, promoting risk-taking, providing necessary resources and support, promoting growth and development and treating mistakes as learning opportunities.

Great leaders also show individualized consideration to their employees. Make people feel valued at work and show that you care about them. There are lots of ways to do this -- for example, set frequent (weekly or monthly) one-on-one meetings, allowing time to get to know your employees' interests and capabilities. Gather concerns and reactions from employees about a problem that needs to be solved or establish an open-door policy so employees can come in to discuss their concerns. And when they do come in, actively listen. Keep track of and acknowledge important dates in your employees' lives (e.g., birthdays, personal achievements). Some very successful executives I know invite a different employee each week to lunch with no agenda other than getting to know him or her better.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Approach each new person you meet in a spirit of adventure. Try to discover what he/she is thinking and feeling; to understand as far as you can the background from which he/she comes, the soil in which his/her roots have grown, the customs and beliefs and ideas which have shaped his/her thinking. If you care enough to make the effort, you can establish an understanding relationship with people who are entirely outside your own orbit."

Even if you do all of these things, it all can blow up if you are not seen as credible. This is often rated as the most important characteristic and universally valued. Living near the Beltway, we know credibility can be lost quickly and that the rebuilding process is very slow. To be seen as credible (and to keep that perception), readily admit when you are wrong, maintain confidentialities, present the facts as they are -- even if it means contradicting self-interests -- keep your commitments and promises, and ensure consistency between your words and actions. As Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. stated: "Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without the strategy."

Remember, leadership is all about perception -- what you do influences how others see you and respond to you. If you want those highly committed employees who perform beyond expectations, you have to demonstrate that you are a transformational leader.

Dr. Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at

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