Buffet, Bezos, Barra…What do the world’s greatest leaders have in common? It’s a question many have asked, with similar conclusions. Harvard Business Review (HBR) pinpoints three essential leadership traits as ‘long-term thinking, short-term savvy and a relentless focus on employees’.
The good news? These are leadership qualities that can be learned. Leadership lessons never end; leadership is a journey of lifelong learning, so perhaps the most important traits of all are a love of knowledge and insatiable curiosity.
The CEO Genome Project was a ten-year study of renowned CEOs to identify shared traits. One of its most interesting findings is that although extroverts tend to be seen as leaders, introverted CEOs usually have a better influence on the bottom-line. There have been a few examples of this during COVID-19, with empathetic leadership being lauded over the traditional ‘strongman’ approach.
Another finding showed how critical it is for leaders to be decisive. Leaders who could come to decisions quickly were 12-times more likely to be high-performing CEOs.
Here are some of the other common leadership traits that many Fortune 500 leaders have in common:
1. Think long-term – an essential leadership strategy:
This is an art that starts with learning to effectively scenario plan. Imagine all the different possible futures for your business and then pinpoint the most likely ones. Identify prospective risks and opportunities and then actively put measures in place now to encourage the best-outcome scenarios to unfold.
Most decisions have longer-term consequences; learn to keep the big picture in mind. With this inevitably comes agility. Thinking in the long-term means ensuring a business has the nimbleness to adapt to unexpected curveballs – whether that’s a short-term market downturn or a global pandemic.
2. Engage with stakeholders:
The Genome Project found CEOs that engaged with company stakeholders were 75% more likely to succeed in their roles. This aligns with HBR’s trait of being absolutely focused on employees. CEOs need to consistently engage all stakeholders in a meaningful way.
That means constantly interacting with employees on a one-on-one basis, meeting with shareholders and the board, and checking in with customers – and balancing the interests of all three. While it used to be very much about shareholder value, the emphasis has shifted to creating shared value. Engagement must reflect this.
3. Be reliable:
This is key to good leadership. Successful leaders are often those who are the most consistently reliable – who show up, make decisions, act and delegate. A large part of leadership is keeping one’s promises.
4. Improve productivity:
Part of ‘short-term savvy’ means implementing iterative ingenuity to make step changes from a productivity perspective. What are the immediate actions you can take now to improve operational efficiencies? What quick measures can you trial to fail forwards fast? To do this, a leader needs a systems thinking approach to understand how all the cogs in a business relate to one another.
5. Love to learn:
Many great leaders are avid readers, which demonstrates an ongoing quest for knowledge and a continued curiosity about the world. Learning to lead is a journey, with practical and theoretical lessons at every point. Of course, experience is always the number one knowledge instiller, but doing courses, reading, listening to talks, training, networking and engaging with a mentor are also critical ways to hone key traits.
As a leader, consider enrolling in one of our leadership courses such as the Executive Development Programme. Great leaders recognise that leadership lessons never end – there’s always something new to learn and that is part of the joy of the job. In COVID-19, empathetic leadership has shown its importance and softer skills have never been as valued. It’s time to hone your capabilities and develop the top traits many of the best leaders in the world have in common.