What makes a great leader? Erika Andersen – fellow Forbes contributor and author of Leading So People Will Follow – says we have an almost instinctive knowledge, thanks to thousands of years of evolution. “For most of history, who you chose as a leader was a life-and-death decision,” she says. “That’s deep wiring, and it’s not going to change in a couple hundred years.” The secret to recognizing these true leaders has been encoded in the heroic fairy tales that have been passed down, she says, and are just as true for contemporary business leaders as they were for medieval princes. “Leadership tales exist all around the world, and tell you what to look for in a good leader. They have important information embedded in them.”
The most essential leadership traits? Andersen argues the best leaders – whether facing fiery dragons or skeptical VCs – embody six key characteristics: farsightedness, passion, courage, wisdom, generosity, and trustworthiness. The decisions we make about who to follow “are not arbitrary, but they are unconscious,” says Andersen. That explains why some executives are “accepted leaders” with outsized influence at work, even if they don’t hold the top title. The fairy tales with heroic leaders essentially warn us, says Andersen, “Don’t let somebody lead you unless they show up looking like this.”
Great leadership is particularly important in times of change, she says. “When things are easy, your default setting will probably work OK. But when things are rough” the stakes are raised. “If you’re comfortable with learning and change, and you’re well grounded in these six attributes, that will really shine forth.”
So what can you do to start cultivating these timeless leadership virtues? Here are three tips Andersen shared.
Build the Right Team. The best leaders, says Andersen, “never do it alone.” She suggests you should think about cultivating three types of helpers in your own life: wizards, well wishers, and wild cards. The former are seasoned experts with unique knowledge they can share (think mentors or outside consultants). Well wishers are your support team, whether it’s a loving spouse or loyal colleagues at work. And wild cards, she says, are “people who you’re not sure if they’re going to eat you or help you.” Whether it’s the temperamental IT czar or the strange new intern who happens to have exactly the insight you need, “You can’t know beforehand. You just have to behave like a leader and these crazy people will show up and do fabulous things.”
Know Thyself. Socrates was right, says Andersen: “What’s most important and foundational is an accurate self-assessment. Even OK leaders can get to be quite good if they’re self-aware.” Of course, that’s not always easy. Leaders need to ask themselves: “Are you willing to go through the disequilibrium of changing behaviors every day and do something you don’t know how to do? Are you willing to put yourself in an awkward place?” Real growth only happens with sustained effort.
Be Vulnerable. Finally, says Andersen, we respond instinctively to leaders who can balance strength with vulnerability. “You need to be both strong and permeable,” she says. “Passion isn’t dogmatism; you need to engage in a dialogue even about things you feel most deeply about.” The John Wayne ‘I’m in charge’ model is ultimately damaging, she believes: “Unfortunately, a lot of new leaders think they have to suddenly have all the answers, always be right, and never let them see you sweat, but that’s BS – it doesn’t work, at least in the long run. Strength and inclusiveness are what really bring out other people.”
What are your secrets to leadership success? What do you think makes for a great leader in changing times?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on December 14, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.