Click here to subscribe to The Zweig Letter for free and receive business management advice from industry experts to your inbox every week!
People who exhibit these qualities are likely to be well-thought of by their people and, more importantly, are able to achieve goals that others deemed impossible.
There are tons of articles and blog posts out there about the qualities of great leaders. It seems like our appetites for this kind of information are unlimited, because we all can see what a huge difference a single leader can have on a large group of people, making it possible for an organization to accomplish great things. Important stuff!
I have been lucky to work for some amazing leaders over the years. From one of the first bike shops I worked at, The Touring Cyclist, owned by a fellow from West Memphis, Arkansas, the late Don Humphries; to the engineering and planning firm Carter & Burgess, run by the late Jerry Allen; to my current organization, The Sam M. Walton College of Business, led by our dean, Matt Waller. On top of that, there are hundreds of firm founders I’ve met and worked with over my 38 years of management consulting in the AEC industry who were outstanding leaders.
Here are some of the qualities those people have (or had) that aren’t often talked about in the context of great leaders – qualities that make (or made) them great:
- Accessibility. Every one of these great leaders is or was someone who would make time for you when you needed it. They are all people who answered calls, texts, and emails, or would meet when you needed to. They didn’t push you off too far into the future, because they recognized that something was urgent in your mind that needed their attention now. For example, I could call Jerry Allen and, if he couldn’t answer, he would call me back within the hour. I could text Matt Waller at 6:02 a.m. and probably hear back from him by 6:06 a.m.
- Approachability. Being approachable means these leaders aren’t going to be too judgmental or make you feel bad for seeking them out. They don’t throw up unnecessary barriers to reaching them, like running everything through an assistant. And they are nice, open, and good listeners. These people go out of their way to make other people feel comfortable. Jerry Allen always kept his door open and would talk with anyone at any level in the company. He was a big advocate of MBWA – “management by wandering around,” a term coined by management consultant and author, Tom Peters.
- Authenticity. The best leaders I have worked for or observed all act like the same person in any setting they are put in. They don’t put on an “act” and become a different person in different situations. That means you always know “who” you are dealing with and what their likely reaction is going to be. Their behavior is going to be consistent. People want that out of their leaders.
- Bravery. The best leaders will confront whatever needs to be confronted, even if it is likely to ruffle some feathers. They can make an unpopular call if it is the right call in their minds. They can make a decision without 100 percent certainty about the outcome That takes a certain amount of bravery that not everyone has, and is the stuff legends are made from that becomes part of the corporate culture for the organization going forward.
- Thoughtfulness. These people remember your birthday. They remember the names of your family members. They are considerate and polite, and introduce you to other people they know at meetings – because that’s the right thing to do. They have a real interest in people and take the time to show their thoughtfulness daily. It comes naturally to them because that is the kind of person they are.
- Optimism. I have never met a great leader in the AEC world (or world as a whole) whom I wouldn’t describe as an optimist. No matter how tough the environment is, they convey their confidence that the organization can overcome all challenges and achieve audacious goals. Each of the three people I mentioned in my introduction to this topic are great examples. Don Humphries started and ran his business on almost no capital, yet he always felt we could be the largest bike dealer in St. Louis and succeed nationally through mail order. Jerry Allen cast his vision for Carter & Burgess to be “2,000 (people) by the year 2000,” with a firm a tenth of that size in the middle of a huge downturn in the economy. Matt Waller pushes for The Walton College to grow in size and reputation, in spite of being part of a state government bureaucracy, our location in Arkansas, and a declining college-age applicant pool. All of these people succeeded in achieving their big goals because of their optimism.
- Involvement. Once again – and I have said it before – great leaders don’t mind getting themselves dirty doing the work of the organization. This flies in the face of the generally-accepted maxim that we should all be doing what is “the highest and best use“ of our time. But my experience is great leaders know that in order to gain the trust, respect, and acceptance of their people, they need to work alongside of them. Don Humphries, even though he had as many as 10 bike shops at once, wasn’t beyond changing a flat tire. Jerry Allen would manage a big, difficult client relationship if necessary. Matt Waller teaches a class – one that he designed. All of these people get it. Great leaders may be managers – but they are also doers.
People who exhibit these qualities are likely to be well-thought of by their people. But perhaps even more importantly, they are able to achieve goals that others deemed impossible. And that’s what leadership is ultimately all about!
Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.