What Makes for an Effective Leader?
Several characteristics, or traits, can make for an effective leader. Arguably, those needed traits can vary with time. Even though there is a plethora of studies on leadership, in this article, we are trying to present a leadership framework that is independent of time and situation. In this framework we have considered what makes a single person an effective leader regardless of whether he is an effectively good (benign) leader or an effectively bad (malignant) one. People who have the following traits, we argue, have inherent leadership qualities regardless of time, place, company, occupation or age.
Barazi Consulting’s effective leadership framework
The following are traits and abilities required for leaders to be effective.
They are efficient on various scales (time, information, and energy):
Time efficiency: Italian poet Dante Alighier once said: “He who knows most grieves most for wasted time”. People who waste time cannot be good leaders. Wasting time can be even costlier than wasting money, since time is a finite resource.
People who use their time prudently are able to capitalize on opportunities before those opportunities have expired. They solve problems quickly, and do not hesitate when making decisions. Steve Jobs, for example, was a stickler for time and spent most of his time making Apple Inc. the company we know today. He believed in efficient use of time and the opportunities it presented. In following his lead, one will be more proactive than reactive to his/her business environment.
Cognitive efficiency (or neural efficiency): When it comes to information, effective leaders can make decisions with a small amount of information. They can find the right signals in the noise and act on the signal (rather than the noise), ensuring a good outcome for nearly everyone. We call this cognitive efficiency, and it includes the leader’s capacity to learn.
A study by the University of California has discovered that the speed of the brain does reflect a person’s intelligence to a large extent. A good example of people renown for use of little information, often in real-time when making business decisions are successful investors. They can screen a large number of instruments and analyse information quickly and make calculated decisions that lead to positive financial return. Cognitive efficiency will require both experience and confidence as psychological factors can also impact this ability.
Energy efficiency: As for energy, leaders who concentrate their energy on the right issues get a better outcome. Energy efficiency often follows from cognitive efficiency because the latter enables the person to identify the best place to concentrate their energy for best outcome. They put their efforts where it counts the most.
Imagine being the lead surgeon in a life or death operating room. Where everybody in that room is looking up to you for direction. Ben Carson, one of the most famous neurosurgeons, known worldwide for the first successful separation of conjoined twins, attached at the back of the head. He has described that operating room as being tense and nervous as they separated those twins. Being able to block outer noise and inner emotion as they conducted the operation is an example of effective leadership and concentration of energy on a task until its completion despite obvious obstacles.
They are able to deal with adversity
Adversity usually comes in many forms or shapes: uncertainty, volatility, complexity, and ambiguity (other forms can include resistance to change). And leaders need to be able to handle those situations when they arise, and they are usually constant). Adversity makes it harder to move forward. For Instance, there can be a financial constraints in a company, where there is not enough capital to take on a project. Thus, leaders need to be able to manage their stress levels which tend to rise when uncertainty or other forms of adversity increase in their intensity and extent. Effective leaders need to be emotionally resilient, so that they are able to maintain their professionalism, performance and productivity during these times.
There is no predefined method to deal with adversity and as such, it tends to illicit different responses from different people. Setbacks usually require quick and specific responses. People with better responses are more effective leaders.
Abraham Lincon is the perfect example of a resilient leader who was able to deal with adversity. Even before he became US president, which he had lost 8 times before finally winning, he had twice failed in business. When he was president, he led the USA through the civil war between 12 Apr 1861 – 9 Apr 1865. That same year of 1865, in December he held the speech that abolished slavery which was a very contentious issue. All through out his presidency, he dealt with setbacks which threatened to derail his plans but persevered to make sure that his most dear policies for and the country moved forward.
They have self-mastery
Good leaders keep their own biases, tendencies, and emotions in check. They maintain a strong drive and willpower in the face of adversity, and the ability to maintain discipline until goals are achieved.
There are several theories proposing how leaders are able to achieve self-mastery. Two of the popular ones posit that, first, leadership is function of one’s maturity level (Dotlich et al., 2006). The other suggests that, one’s development as a leader is a result of age and experience gathered in different life stages (Gulle´n and Ibarra, 2010). Although different, all these theories have one thing in common: they posit that as one develops in life and in the leadership cycle, their ability to handle situations, emotions and people becomes better. They are able to rely on their individual adequacy (self-reliance, identity, work orientation), social adequacy (social commitment, openness to change, tolerance) and interpersonal adequacy (communication skills, trust, role knowledge) (Ellen Greenberger, 1984) all which are in line with self-mastery.
According to John W. Thompson, former CEO of Symantec Corporation, leadership is the natural expression of the fully functional personality. The fully functional personality of a leader is judged on his ability to learn from experiences and use that knowledge in self-development. A leader in this case should engage in processes where his/her willpower, beliefs, assumptions, values, principles, needs, relational patterns and social strategies are subject to feedback, mirroring and testing (Karp, 2012, p. 139).
Floyd Mayweather Jr. arguably the greatest pound for pound boxer of all time, is the perfect example of an athlete leader with self-mastery. Floyd was so disciplined in his fighting career that he did nor partake in alcoholic beverages during the course of his career, it is also well known that on his night outs, he used to jog back home as his team followed him in vehicles. As Mayweather got older in the sport, and as he transitioned from ‘pretty boy’ to Money-Mayweather, which coincided with him switching his boxing from being attack-oriented to more defensive; to have a longer career, he also took ownership of his image rights and promotion company which was built with values of discipline and commitment. And because he was well known for this, his team was able to follow his vision.
They can move others to take action
Effective leaders are able to inspire others and prompt them to take action. They are able to align people and move them towards the same goals and purpose. Leaders in this article cut across all occupations or their ages; it can be the CEO of a multinational company, the student leader in college, a military general or even the leader of a gang. As long as the person is able to inspire confidence in those under him/her that they are willing to follow his/her every direction, then the individual is considered a good leader regardless of the circumstance.
An effective leader should have knowledge of the working environment, the people one leads and the tasks that should be done (Andani Mu-azu, Iddirisu. 2015). What this does is give his followers/subordinates confidence that their leader has their interests at heart and knows exactly what they go through, the challenges/ roadblocks they may encounter and gives insight on how best to deal with them.
An example of a charismatic leader, albeit a ‘dark’ one is Charles Manson. The murderous cult leader who spent over 40 years in prison. They have been numerous books and TV shows dedicated to the man who fascinated people even while incarcerated. So much so that in his later years, 26 year old Afton Elaine Burton got granted a license to marry the man. His followers, mainly women, were so mesmerized by the man and his looks that they likened him to Jesus and they did everything he asked of them. This ranging from drugs, sex to murder.
When combined, the above mentioned traits give the leader a tremendous capacity to change, which is at the heart of what leaders (both good and bad) have. Those traits can be used to construct a scorecard which helps to identify capable leaders as well as develop future ones.
Andani Mu-azu, Iddirisu. (2015). The Art of Leading Through Motivating Employees in Organisations: Reflecting on Leadership Development in Ghana. International Journal of Research in Computer Applications and Management. 5. 72.
Dotlich, D.L., Cairo, P.C. and Rhinesmith, S.H. (2006), Head, Heart & Guts. How the World’s Best Companies Develop Complete Leaders, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
Gulle´n, L. and Ibarra, H. (2010), “Seasons of a leader’s development: beyond a one-size fits all approach to designing interventions”, University INSEAD, Fontainebleau, Working Paper
No. 2010/14/OB, INSEAD.
Greenberger, E. (1984), “Defining psycosocial maturity in adolescence”, Advances in Child
Behavioral Analysis and Therapy, Vol. 3, pp. 1-37.
Flocco, N., Canterino, F., & Cagliano, R. (2021). Leading innovation through employees’ participation: Plural leadership in employee-driven innovation practices. Leadership, 174271502098792. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715020987928
Karp, T. (2012). Developing oneself as a leader. Journal of Management Development, 32(1), 127–140. https://doi.org/10.1108/02621711311287080