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The Hidden Qualities Of Great Leaders

What are the qualities of truly great leaders? Not the ones you think.

It’s been said that hard times create the best leaders. I’m not so sure. The inexperienced leader certainly develops new skills when business is in the dumps, the company is in crisis, or shareholders want more earnings and maybe a few heads. But hard times don’t really forge great leaders. Rather, in hard times, the hidden qualities of great leaders just show up.

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There are more books on the shelves that try to explain the source of greatness than any manager could possibly read or rationalize into a single theory for personal growth and development. I’ve contributed to this excess myself with a book called The Arc of Ambition: Defining the Leadership Journey (Perseus, 2001). I’m still convinced that a manager’s personal ambition is critical to his or her success, but it’s not the sole route to greatness.

Some traits, of course, are obvious: vision, passion, discipline, and persistence. But I have been both amused and distressed over the past two years observing and advising managers who exhibit these bravado traits, because they don’t always work in hard times.

The vision thing seems hollow when business is stuck in a two-year slump. The troops get tired of hearing the same thing without a recovery in sight. You can have passion for an idea or a product, but that passion isn’t worth very much if your competitors have a better idea or product. And these days, discipline seems to be a euphemism for cost reduction. Only persistence may have value in difficult times.

But there are a few other qualities that inspire people, get a company through challenges, and return it to a path of growth. These qualities lead to sustained greatness, not just a flash during good times. They are often hidden, not touted. I see them only in the very best leaders.

Managing must, of course, begin with an objective. But understanding where you’re going should quickly be followed by empathy, an attribute that is both a hard and soft quality. Understanding what your people, your customers, your suppliers–and even your competitors–are going through is critical to making intelligent decisions when business conditions are difficult. The caring part of empathy, especially for the people with whom you work, is what inspires people to stay with a leader when the going gets rough. The mere fact that someone cares is more often than not rewarded with loyalty.

Next to empathy lies the willingness to understand your personal responsibility for what trouble you and your company are in. I once saw a manager who periodically let his company fall into chaos just so that he could exercise his brilliance in cleaning up the mess.

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Many managers are also prepared to blame their business conditions on others, or in times like this, the economy. They sit still, waiting for things to improve. Great leaders are quietly introspective, always asking whether they are a cause of the organization’s problems or whether they are doing what needs to be done.

To take decisive action, great managers are always searching for the truth. They look for ideas in strange places and encourage debate in search of the right decision. They also recognize the obvious: When a meeting room is quiet, no one is saying what they think. The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper demonstrated this searching quality when he said to his students, “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.”

The willingness to be so open requires the strength to make yourself vulnerable. It also requires a great leader to encourage people to speak truth to power.

Too philosophical, you say. Don’t hard times call for hard heads and hard decisions? Well, who would you follow into battle: the manager who spouts the vision thing, reads from the company’s press releases, and feigns passion as the ship is sinking? Or the manager–a smart one, of course–who displays empathy, understands how his behavior affects success or failure, and is open to discovering the truth? The latter hidden qualities are those that lead to sustained greatness.

In that case, I think of Jim Burke, the former chairman of Johnson & Johnson who managed his company through the Tylenol crisis. I also think back to Harry Truman, who went from managing a haberdashery to managing the country–searching for the truth and telling it as he saw it. No pollsters or PR folks told Harry what to say.

It’s time for greatness to show up again.

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James Champy (james.champy@ps.net), chairman of Perot Systems’ consulting practice, is the author of X-Engineering the Corporation (Warner Books, 2002).