What Is Leadership: the Qualities of Great Leaders
By: Connie Blaszczyk, Managing Editor, Monster Resource Center
What makes a great leader? In today’s high-stakes business world, do we still believe that great leaders are born, not made? What defines great leadership now?
To answer these questions, author Gary Burnison went to the source, interviewing some of the world’s top leaders. These conversations were later compiled in the book, No Fear of Failure: Real Stories of How Leaders Deal with Risk and Change.
In this interview, Burnison shares his insights about the traits of great leaders as well as the accompanying risks, challenges and rewards.
Monster: Most people mistakenly believe that great leaders are born — but many of the people you spoke with developed and grew their leadership skills over time.
Burnison: Every leader we spoke to reported, from personal experience and from observation, that while some leadership abilities are innate, these skills are developed over time through experiences, increased responsibilities, and greater accountability.
Monster: What are some of the essential characteristics of a great leader that emerged in your interviews?
Burnison: Great leaders care about their teams. Like a good coach, the leader is focused on what the “players” know — not what they know. This requires competence on the part of the leader, especially to empower others to stretch themselves and accomplish more that they thought possible. Leaders inspire and instill confidence.
They communicate continuously so that the actions of their teams are aligned with the mission, vision, and purpose of the organization. And, leaders create an environment in which it is safe to give feedback, whether it’s a problem on the horizon or an opportunity that is just being realized.
Monster: Whose stories exemplified that most?
Burnison: Two stories stand out. The first is General Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck, who recently retired as Superintendent of West Point. As a career military officer, he developed his leadership through a variety of experiences, including being battle-tested as he led ground troops during “Operation Anaconda” on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the months immediately following 9/11. Central to his leadership development over the years were lessons he learned from his mentor about competence and caring. As he put it, a leader must be competent. And, when soldiers know that the leader cares for them, they will literally put their lives on the line.
The second story is Eli Broad, who today is a billionaire philanthropist who supports the arts, medical research, education, and civic projects. Over the course of his impressive career, he founded two Fortune 500 companies: KB Home and SunAmerica. His observation was that, as an entrepreneur, his leadership developed over time. In fact, Broad talked about working hard at becoming a leader to earn the respect and loyalty of others. People saw him as a “winner”– meaning he could take calculated risks and succeed far more than he failed — so they wanted to be on his team. Leadership, after all, requires followership.
Monster: Entrepreneur Carlos Slim said that while his sons run many of his businesses today, he was cognizant of the need to cultivate a deep bench of people and to prioritize talent development within the organization.
Burnison: The No. 1 role of the CEO is growth. World-class leaders like Carlos Slim recognize the important role that talent plays in growing an organization. One cannot exist without the other. Talent development is not only an outside-in approach, but also inside-out. You need to make sure that people are being cultivated and given opportunities to expand. Having a deep bench of talent means that you not only have a team that grows with the organization — but helps grow the organization.
Monster: Liu Chuanzhi spoke of the necessity of team building within the top leadership team of an organization, particularly for a global organization with cultural differences.
Burnison: When Liu Chuanzhi established the computer company that later became Lenovo, he started off with only 11 people. This was China in the early days of economic and political reform. Now Lenovo is the fourth largest PC maker in the world. Nonetheless, a spirit of collaboration and team work — that group goals come first, which help to realize individual goals and aspirations — is very much alive in the company.
Monster: Daniel Vasella’s background as doctor highlighted the “soft” skills of leadership — being empathetic and listening, skills that came into play as CEO of Novartis.
Burnison: For anyone, but especially the leader, listening is the most important communication skill. You have to listen twice as much as you talk — maybe even more. Listening, through the silences and the pauses, also empowers people to provide feedback, especially when it is difficult to say or there is concern as to how the leader will react.
For Vasella, his ability to be an empathetic listener elevated his leadership. When a leader is empathetic to the team — realizing what their fears and concerns, joys and aspirations are — a connection is forged that encourages followership and fosters more open communication.
Monster: Anne Mulcahy seems to exemplify the empathetic characteristics of a caring leader, which says a lot for her, given the difficult situation she walked into at Xerox.
Burnison: During the difficult days at Xerox, when it was uncertain whether the turnaround would be successful, Anne Mulcahy exhibited compassion and caring for the employees of the company. To lead the company during this difficult transition she relied on what she called “high-touch leadership”– face-to-face, transparent, and in-person. That meant logging the miles to meet with employees, particularly when she had to deliver or explain the “bad news,” such as a facility being closed or cutbacks.
By making herself personally available, she showed that company cared and was genuinely grateful for the contribution of each and every individual.
Monster: What recommendations do you have for readers who want to improve their leadership skills?
Burnison: Remember: listen, learn and then lead — in that order. Most people do not listen enough. When the other person is speaking, we’re busy thinking about the next thing that we want to say.
By focusing solely on the other person, we are communicating nonverbally that they matter, that what they say is very important. When you give the other person your fully attention (especially without electronic distractions) you are showing respect and fostering loyalty, which are big components of leadership.
The second step is learn. Good leaders are voracious readers and lifelong learners. Be inspired by history and biography. Learn how others faced challenges and made a difference. Then, after you listen and learn, you lead by creating alignment with purpose and passion to pursue it. The leadership journey is never done. Everyone can become a better leader. The joy is found along the way.
Gary Burnison (Los Angeles, CA) is CEO of Korn/Ferry International, headquartered in the firm's Los Angeles office. He is also a member of the firm's Board of Directors. Leading Korn/Ferry's transformation as a talent management organization, Burnison spearheads the firm's evolution as a diversified provider of human capital solutions. Prior to being CEO, he served as Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer from 2003 to 2007. Prior to Korn/Ferry, he was principal and chief financial officer of Guidance Solutions, a privately held consulting firm that develops and supports technology solutions. Before Guidance Solutions, he served as an executive officer and a member of the board of directors of Jefferies and Company, an investment bank and brokerage firm. He has also served as partner at KPMG Peat Marwick. He holds an MBA from the University of Southern California.