Blake Snow

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What great leaders do: 9 characteristics

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What do the world’s greatest leaders have in common? What makes a great boss?

Stanford professor and management consultant Robert Sutton recently asked that question and presented his findings in an hour-long, information-packed lecture.

According to his research, this is what great leaders often do:

  1. They are confident, competent, authoritative, and open to outside input. They act on what they know today, but adjust their strategy as new information becomes available, Sutton says. They know they don’t have all the answers and update their approach as new ones become available.
  2. They give followers time to work. You don’t grow a seedling by digging it up every week after successfully planting it. Similarly, great leaders aren’t micro managers or hyper involved. They understand that the mere presence of authority can reduce risk-taking and creativity, so they get out of the way and only meet when problems arise.
  3. They breakdown large tasks into bite-size pieces and prevent roadblocks. Big, complicated, or messy goals can be discouraging. Because of this, the world’s best leaders are good at organizing and prioritizing challenges into digestible chunks to build momentum and move towards a goal one step at a time. Furthermore, they limit the number of participant intrusions, distractions, and meetings.
  4. They don’t punish or discourage bearers of bad news. According to Sutton, underlings don’t share bad news because there are consequences for doing so. For example, everyday engineers from one company he studied knew their product failure rate was one in 300, whereas senior leaders thought it was one in several thousand, because the latter had been shielded from the truth. Sutton calls this “the mum effect.” To avoid it, great leaders invite bad news and consider it instead of punishing it.
  5. They are punctual. Great leaders show up to meetings on time, don’t run over, and often end meetings early instead of engaging in power grabs that show their time is more important than others. More importantly, great leaders don’t believe they’re above the rules.
  6. They embrace loving conflict. They don’t avoid conflict, Sutton says, rather they use it as a tool to refine and strengthen their position. They welcome healthy debate.
  7. They sacrifice selfish superstars in favor of the team. Great leaders don’t overvalue highly productive but toxic players. In one example, Sutton found that after a nationwide superstar (but selfish) salesmen was fired, same store sales grew by 20%, although no single salesmen was anywhere near the superstar level. In other words, great leaders will bench (or kick off) star players that don’t play well with others.
  8. They discourage assholes by threatening to fire them Although people can change through great coaching, great leaders always tell their followers, players, or workers that they will fire them if they repeatedly act out in selfish or asshole-ish ways, Sutton says. This really keeps employees in line.
  9. They leave their followers feelings energized instead of discouraged. Perhaps more than anything else, Sutton argues, great bosses leave their workers feeling inspired, especially in the face of difficult circumstances. The give energy instead of taking it.

Of course, there are other factors involved that make a leader great. But those are the big ones, according to Sutton.

See also: How to be a good boss in a bad economy