Traits of a Leader

Focusing on the Essentials

Ram Charan asked:

Do you think you know a leader when you see one? Most companies have the wrong notion of what a leader really is and does. Yet all the development efforts in the world can’t deepen the leadership pool if they’re focused on the wrong people to begin with.

The brilliant strategist, the creative genius, the financial engineer, and other bright people command attention and respect, and rightfully so. People recognize such individuals’ knowledge and intelligence, respect their opinions and ideas, and appear willing to follow them. Combine that great mental ability with a strong work ethic and drive to achieve, and no wonder people are impressed. Unaware of their own shortcomings and driven to succeed, these experts push for leadership jobs at higher and higher levels, persuading — sometimes even intimidating — their bosses to promote them. But many lack essential leadership traits. Although they may succeed for a while when put in charge of other people, without a natural ability to lead, they are unlikely to ever succeed as CEOs or high-level leaders outside their domains of expertise.

What does a natural leader look like at the age of twenty-five or thirty? The usual attempts to answer that question take the form of laundry lists of personal qualities. These are important, but on their own they can be misleading, especially because the same wonderful personal qualities can be found in political leaders, spiritual leaders, and leaders in sports, many of whom don’t have an ounce of talent for business. Besides, many personal traits and capabilities associated with leadership in the past are insufficient today. You have to go beyond the list of personal traits you’re looking for to include other indications that a person can succeed in leading a business function, business unit, or whole company in the emerging business context.

One way to think about the raw talent or inner engine of a business leader is to think of two strands of a helix: people acumen (the ability to harness people’s energy) and business acumen (understanding the essence of how a business makes money). The beginnings of these strands are pretty much in place in individuals by the time they reach their twenties. After that, we can test someone’s people acumen and business acumen and give them opportunities to expand them. But we don’t yet know how to implant them in mature people who lack them entirely. That’s why spotting these strands, however undeveloped they may be, should be central to any effort to identify leadership potential. People who lack them are unlikely to ever reach the highest leadership levels, no matter how many other leadership traits they possess. Only when people acumen and business acumen are present in some degree should personal traits come into play.

It’s fruitless to argue whether those talents and personal traits are born or made. We know they begin to manifest themselves early in life and are firmly in place in some people by the time they join the workforce. Some of those qualities may be latent and come to the surface only later under certain conditions — such as when a person who is not the official leader suddenly takes charge of a crisis. But it is unlikely you can implant them into a mature person without inherent leadership abilities to make him or her a leader.

Copyright © 2007 Ram Charan

The above is an excerpt from the book Leaders at All Levels

by Ram Charan

Published by Jossey-Bass; December 2007;$27.95US/$33.99CAN; 978-0-7879-8559-2

Copyright © 2007 Ram Charan


Ram Charan is co-author (with Larry Bossidy) of 2002’s runaway bestseller Execution (670,000 copies sold). He is a highly sough-after advisor to corporations, boards, CEOs, and senior executives in companies ranging from start-ups to the Fortune 500, including GE, Dupont, and Colgate-Palmolive. He is also author of What the CEO Wants You to Know and Know-How and co-author of Confronting Reality and The Leadership Pipeline, and writes a highly-regarded column for Yahoo! Finance. Charan has taught at the Harvard Business School and the Kellogg School of Northwestern University.

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